–Write what you know—
It’s probably the most common advice handed down to the novice writer, often with the cold austerity of a principal handing off a diploma. It’s a symbolic statement and a rite of passage.
It’s communicated with a nod that suggests: “You seem like you might someday know something, so when you get to that point, write it. In the meantime—just fumble.”
–What if you don’t know anything and never will?—
It’s a dewy, wide-eyed look that accompanies this question. It’s the look of a novice, scared to death.
This is a good question. It’s one that occurred to me twenty years ago when I first received the advice to write what I know. It still fits.
I don’t know anything. Sure, there are things I understand, some things I have a decent grasp of, but I don’t know anything, not really. At least not the way advice-givers mean.
To write what you know implies expertise. And to be an expert implies arrival. Those who are experts have reached a destination. The problem is that if you’ve reached your destination, you’re no longer moving. Arrival is static.
To be in process is dynamic. To be in process implies perpetual motion. There are no trappings of finality to entangle us there.
I remember times in my life when I was an expert. The arrogance of that belief is astounding, and it came with all the immovable stubbornness that accompanies static living. Because I believed myself to be an expert, there was no room for community; there was no room for growth.
What did I miss? Perspective. Alternative views were lost on me. Views that were robust and expansive. Views that had flesh and bones, not just thoughts and words.
I thought I was an expert on grief, which is absurd. Anybody who has experienced grief knows that you can’t even begin to understand grief until you feel like your body has melted so far into the wood panels of your floor that you’ll have to be scraped up, bit by bit. And at that point the industrious hand of another–one that scrapes you off the floor–is invaluable and it’s the only option. And even then, you don’t know grief. You’ve just begun to learn. I’ve only begun to learn.
Nowadays, for so many reasons, I’d rather be dynamic than static. I’d rather be a novice than an expert. I’d rather be dewy-eyed and eager to experience the world with curiosity, hunger, awe, and ever-so-many questions.
So, in the unlikely event that I’m asked, here’s my advice to anyone, like me, who wants to fumble at writing.
Write what you live and breathe and love and fear. Write what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from. Write what you don’t know but are trying to understand.
And if you don’t care about or want to write, then learn anyway. Learn from what you live and breathe and love and fear. Learn from what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from. Learn from what you don’t know but are trying to understand.
Maybe then expertise will be usurped by a different and, dare I say, better goal. Maybe then what you know will be replaced by what you desire.