Write What You DON’T Know . . . Yet

First, this is funny:

We’ve all heard it. And most of us have probably said it. Write what you know. Value that singular fingerprint you carry, the gathered sediment of our long hours, the crazy accumulation of days, the fossilized imprint of memory — all that we know, and have felt, and dreamt. Start there, dear writer.

As most folks know from my school visits, I’m a writer who very much begins from the particulars of my life. My family, my memories, my experiences.

But also, but also, but also.

Let’s not forget, as we recite the mandatory mantra, write what you know, that part of the great fun and discovery of writing is to learn new things, explore new places and events, and to write it.

Write what you find out. Write what you learn.

Don’t feel limited by your small little town, the supposed meagerness of your experiences. Learn new things. Go out — seek, discover! I’m saying: Writing doesn’t have to always fall back on the familiar. Inspiration might well come from your journey into an unknown country.

That is, again: You can’t write convincingly about what you don’t know. But you can certainly find out. You can research a new place, a different kind of job, an illness, or any other place your imagination carries you.

I think many young writers, boys especially, feel constrained by this idea of writing what they know. Their lives, they might think at this age, are too dull, too boring. Not a story anybody’d want to hear, much less write.

(Of course we understand that it is not our lives, but our response to the life, that truly matters.)

We hear it so often, from so many writers: they love the research, the finding out; it’s the fuel that feeds the furnace. It gives flesh to the writing, the research becomes the fire, makes it all fun and, yes, even educational. You can imagine a character in a place you’ve never been, a beach or city or distant moon, so long as you convincingly make the reader know it, and for most of us that begins with research.

Write what you don’t know — but first, learn it.

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