Monday, 14 April 2014

Write what you don't know

The saying, “Write what you know,” has become a maxim of creative writing. It seems to imply that if you want to write and have grown up in a family that runs a dry-cleaning business in a small town in Iowa, you had better write about dry cleaning in the Mid-West, and not even think about anything else. But this cannot be right. One can imagine an editor saying to a writer about a passage that lacks verisimilitude: “Write what you know.” But here—as with the best feedback in teaching or psychotherapy—what is said must be exactly the most helpful thing to say at exactly the right moment. When broadened to a principle, the saying becomes empty. George Eliot wrote, in Middlemarch, about Dr Tertius Lydgate without herself being a doctor, without even being a man. Stephen Crane, in The red badge of courage, wrote an engaging story of a private on the Union side in the American Civil War without having fought in that war and without having been in combat of any kind.

We do need principles. One might be: “Write about what fascinates you.” The fascination needs to be enough to sustain you as you explore your subject. Your writing will be your coming to know it.

The best book I know on principles of writing is R. G. Collingwood’s The principles of art.  I have written about it here before (click here), but the book deserves to be revisited. Collingwood argues that all art derives from an emotion that affects us deeply, that has an urgency about it, and that is not understood. So, says Collingwood, imagine this man:
At first he is conscious of having an emotion, but not conscious of what this emotion is. All he is conscious of is a perturbation or excitement, which he feels going on within him, but of whose nature he is ignorant. While in this state, all he can say about his emotion is: “I feel . . . I don’t know how I feel.” From this helpless and oppressed condition he extricates himself by doing something which we call expressing himself. This is an activity which has something to do with the thing we call language: he expresses himself by speaking. It also has something to with consciousness: the emotion expressed is the emotion of whose nature the person who feels it is no longer unconscious (pp. 109-110).
A work of art is the expression of such a not-yet-understood emotion in a language. The language might be of the words of a novel, or of the colours and layout of a painting, or of the notes a piece of music.

Collingwood says that we might make something such as a chair and know what to do, as well as what the result will be. Art is different. If we know the result before we start, what we do may be craft but it’s not art.

An exploration in a language of art is apt to take a long time and, for Collingwood, the emotion is both the object of the exploration, and the almost obsessional urge that drives us. I think Collingwood’s principle here needs modification. The urge must be emotional. It’s what keeps an artist going, perhaps for years on a single work, but the subject matter need not be an emotion itself. (A lovely film on this question is Tim’s Vermeer. It’s about the language of visual art. Its subject matter was not an emotion but the question: “How did Vermeer manage to paint such wonderful pictures.” The film is a documentary about Tim Jenison’s exploration of the question. The project took him more than five years, and doing the painting of an actual Vermeer, The music lesson, took him 130 days.)

Artistic writers write what they don’t know. They write what they deeply desire to know, and come to know it better in the exploration that is their writing.

Collingwood, R. G. (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teller (2013). Tim’s Vermeer. Film. USA.

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Inkling said...

Writing often breaks into two categories. The first is, as you note, writing what you know, which has the marvelous result of informing your readers about a subject. One of my books, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer fits that. I write about what I did for over two years. Read it any you'll understand all the ups, downs, and complexities of caring for children with cancer.

The other categories, which you call "write what you don't know" has a competitive advantage. Knowing nothing, your views are likely to more closely fit those of your readers. You can cater to their whims, please their desires and feed their prejudices. A lot of readers, alas, like that and come back again and again for more.

I once knew a woman who wanted to get into writing romantic novels. According to her, quite a few were written either by men following a tried and true formula or by elderly spinsters who'd never had a romance or marriage to break down their illusions.

I always opt for the first. Other writers prefer the second. Each will find readers.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Inkling, for this comment.

Yes, you are right. There are lots of advantages to writing what you know. I was wanting to suggest, though, that it isn't everything. So, your suggestion that really, one should think of two categories is a good one.

ABi said...

"Write what you don't know" - well said! Writing about what you don't know is THE true writing!
Writing is about laboring to understand. That's why the truly great writers, painters and musicians (especially those who did not experience public fame when they were alive) wrote, painted and composed for themselves, not for others; out of compulsion; to clear up the overwhelming chaos of thoughts and feelings and establish order; simply for the sake of it and beauty of creation; to explore the world around them externally or internally; to discover who they were; or to send a message in the bottle and communicate with the stars - they did not do it for others! They were oblivious or unaware of, or consciously did not or chose not to care about the so-called "needs and expectations of the audience". Had they cared about meeting such needs and expectations, the product would have most likely been a typical pre-calculated "bestseller", a commercial success, but never a masterpiece or a true diamond of human thought and beauty.

ABi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Oatley said...

Thanks ABi for this comment. I think you are right that exploration is the key issue here, and the near-obsessionality to keep going. I don't think communication with a readership or audience should be ruled out entirely, though. One can write to make contact with other minds without thinking about best-sellers. I think that as one writes and re-writes, one needs to read and re-read, and as one does this one puts oneself into the role of the reader. I think that, too, is part of the exploration.

ABi said...

I agree. Of course, there is rarely good writing without good reading. Good writing is a result of knowing the material of good writers who set standards and models. Artistic literature without Dante, Homer or Shakespeare? Marquez without Borges (or Faulkner, Hemingway, Kafka or Proust?) Isabel Allende or Salman Rushdie without Marquez? One who does that (who has been and continues to go through that type of training) and has the writer's flame is always able to communicate. And readers, on the other hand, will always know how to be in the receptive end of that communication. They, i.e., the writer and the reader, will most likely find each other.

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