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.