Write what you don’t know


The Wright brothers flew, in order to learn how to fly


If you feel that you want to write – and it is very much a feeling –  you are bound to run into this question (or doubt): what am I going to write about?

The advice you get given is – write what you know.

You probably take this to mean: draw on your own experience, your own life. In the current literary climate, it often seems that authenticity is more important than storytelling.

Well, fine, if you’ve had the kind of life in which you were tragically orphaned when you lost your parents in an Arctic blizzard, you were raised by wolves, stowed away on a boat to Hawaii, got shipwrecked in the Pacific and spent three years on a coral reef, developed a cure for malaria, was rescued and won the Nobel prize for medicine…

Er. OK. None of us have had that life. For most of us – and the younger you are, the more likely this is to be true – if you could only write about what you had directly experienced, you would quickly run out of things to say.

So my motto is – write what you don’t know.

As human beings we are wonderfully well equipped to write about what we don’t know because we have three things: curiosity, imagination, and the internet.

Writing should be a voyage of discovery. Don’t worry about writing what you know – write in order to know.

You don’t have to know it all when you begin whatever you’re writing. You don’t have to have it all mapped out. You just have to be courageous, start, and the ideas will grow. Little blobs, amoeba ideas, floating around in your subconscious will meet, join, split and multiply. Your story will get bigger, take shape, change shape. You have to be prepared for it not ending up the story you thought it was going to be.

The more you write, the more you gain confidence that the words and ideas will come, and that, with persistence and experience, you will be able to shape them into something that is artistically satisfying.

If you keep a journal or a diary, purely for yourself, you probably already know this. Writing down your feelings helps you know them and know yourself better. A few months on, if you look back at a diary entry it can seem meaningless, self-indulgent or downright embarrassing – but it doesn’t matter. Writing that page on that day was what mattered. It took you through a process and propelled you forward.

I was a journalist for many years and I love digging for facts, doing research and seeing what comes of it. Bad journalism is when you decide what the story is (or your editor tells you what the story is) and you go looking for the facts to fit it. Good journalism is when you do the research first, talk to people and listen to their answers – and then let the story take shape out of that. That’s the way to come up with something genuinely new.

I love this quote by Gloria Steinem, from (I think) her new autobiography My Life On The Road (Oneworld). She says:

“If you want to be a writer, write to express rather than persuade. Writing to persuade is a worthy endeavour, but it doesn’t allow you to admit uncertainty. And it’s actually fun to learn, which is why we often laugh if we have a new thought or idea. It’s that ‘aha’ moment when you suddenly realise two familiar things come together to present a new possibility. As a journalist I felt as if I was being paid to learn. It made me feel free.”