Write What You Don’t Know

I’m sticking up for the other side of the equation. Write what you don’t know.

Linda G Hill wrote in her blog that we should write what we know. More specifically, try writing who you know. I’m not going to say that this is a bad idea. I think it’s a very good idea to use people you know around you as information on how people actually do things. Real expressions, sayings, ways of speaking, these are all crucial to good writing.

I think we all do this too. We unconsciously use people around us as templates. It just takes extra effort to break these things down into their constituent parts so that they can be written. I think this is what “write what you know” is important. There is the richness of detail available to be broken down.

It’s a good dictum. And I think great books are written using it.

But I’m going to stick up for writing what you don’t know as well.

This could mean writing something that you really have no earthly clue about. For instance, writing about the slow incremental development of quantum mechanics over the decades. Definitely neither riveting nor going to be good in any way.

I don’t mean that.

I mean absurdism in a sense. I mean bending the world into different rules that cannot exist and in all likelihood should not exist in realistic fiction. This isn’t like fantasy fiction, where there are rules and structures that are constructed and written with in. This is more about creating those vague rules and then starting to chip away at how they work from within the writing, sometimes breaking them. It’s the ever present attempt to break the rules set up and feed the characters through the absurdist woodchipper that leaves nothing sacred.

In my mind, and some practice, this is also a fun exercise.

A short story that I’m working on is about heaven which is controlled by writers and screen writers. Living in it is experiencing radical scene changes, fades, smash cuts, etc… The more insane, the more outlandish, the more unlike anything on earth is very freeing as the main character tries to grab hold on what is going on around him but it never makes sense for anything longer than a few seconds, sometimes fighting back and constructing a linear narrative. I still know some of the elements that go into it, but how heaven is organized, how the character interacts with it, all are new rules being invented as I go as the two fight one another.

And in the end, I have no earthly clue what I’m writing. I’m just writing it to add to it and have fun with it. I doubt the story is going to end, or at least it will end and then restart.

The point is not to write something usable. It’s almost to produce something unusable. I use it to let my mind wander into areas that it doesn’t know to pull at the creative strings.

I’m defending that. Writing to the point where what happens next could be anything and whatever you add is solely because it seems fun/malicious/delicious/hateful.

To me, writing what you know adds detail and realism, writing what you don’t know, writing without end or structure in sight, that helps add creativity.

At the end of one session, it helped me think about my novel in new ways and let me break out of little constrains that I naturally impose on myself without knowing it. My mind felt freer and in the end I realized that I had written too much of what I know into the characters and I needed a little more freedom from the constrains of my friend’s facial tics and bad singing. And now I’m back to the drawing board for characters while I figure out a better way to kill someone in the end.

I think I made progress. Yeah. That’s progress.

4 responses to “Write What You Don’t Know

    • I do have fun with it. And something that I forgot to put in there is that by testing the limits of concepts, it’s easier to see where the lines are and what rules they do obey.

    • It takes time to get into it, and a little practice to find out how the absurd works. It’s basically training lateral thinking in writing which I think helps add a little humor and a little post-modern touch to writing.

      But then again, I tend to enshrine post-modern writing as filled with awesome (both of my favorite writers are po-mo)

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