it seems obvious that one should write what one knows. a gardener will write a better gardening book than I; a fly fisherman is going to write a better book about flies and ties and rivers than one who doesn’t fish. not only will a writer spend less time researching a subject they’re familiar with, they will also write with an insider’s perspective and hopefully an insider’s passion; they will write with more intimacy and thus create a better book.
this is not to say one cannot write about what one doesn’t know: research combined with imagination and inspiration opens worlds of wonder for a writer caught in their spell. I find myself lost in magical realms when given a little knowledge and a creative whirl. as intensely direct and fulfilling as it is to write about your areas of expertise, to wander into new experiences offers gifts you can neither anticipate nor predict.
but there is a different way of writing about what you don’t know, one in which I’m currently snarled, one which I find extremely challenging if I let myself think about it. it’s the task a writer faces when writing fiction; the task of letting the story evolve on its own. of knowing that you don’t yet know the outcome, but must write anyway.
perhaps there are authors who design a storyline before they write a word, who know what each character will face and say and when. who know the movement and resolution, and only need to fill in with words and minor details. I am not that author. I begin wherever I’m inspired to begin, and let everything evolve from there. I may have a general message or theme, or not. I may have a few characters in mind, or only one. I often visualize a setting, but it may become just one of many. I cannot always know where my book is headed.
and thus I end up writing what I don’t know.
I would rather be able to outline the entire project and to know exactly where I’m headed . . . but apparently I don’t work that way. what I’ve found is that I need to firmly grip a huge hunk of faith and to trust that it will come to me. time and again I begin writing about one thing, say, a character sitting on a rock beside a river, and end up somewhere completely unexpected, say, at his parent’s home in grinnell, iowa, writing about his father’s search for a journal at the town stationery shop. I can’t always know where my mind, heart, and pen are going to go.
I want to. if I’m not going to write about what I know well—my passions—then I want to do oodles of research and outlines and predictions and planning. I want to know where I’m going. I fight this desire every time I put pen to paper, and force myself to sink deeper into that subconscious level that knows everything about every story I’ll ever write. that–as julia cameron describes it–river of creativity that lies deep within us, that place which knows better than we do exactly what we desire to create.
once again it comes down to faith. trust. letting go and letting God, or letting go and letting your true, inner self take over. which is the right thing to do whether you’re writing about what you know, what you’re not certain you know, and what you’re certain you don’t really know.