Oh My, The Things I Don't Know

How many times are we told to write about what we know?

Too many.

I’ll be honest — I’m a magpie, by which I mean I’m someone who’s easily distracted when  previously unnoticed bright shiny objects catch my eye.  I believe this is a wonderful quality for a writer.  Sure, we need discipline, stick-to-it-ness, focus and all that.  We need to be able to get our butt in the chair, the pen in our fingers and slip down to the dreaming state where we can follow one word after another.

That’s a given.

But what about inspiration? Could it be that if we pay attention to what catches our attention, what sparkles in the corner of our eye, might be inspiration calling?

Hmm. . . I wonder what those strange lights are?

I’m reading (one of the five or six books I have on the go. See magpie, above) In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan L. Richardson.  In the first part of the book, Richardson talks about the Garden of Eden, about Eve and hunger and that apple.  She discusses the possibility that God (The Ineffable, your Higher Power, your Soul, whatever. . . )  works to guide us through our desires and hungers, pointing us to a deeper desire, for which the overt desire may just be a metaphor.  She quotes M.F.K Fisher, the famed food writer, from the forward to Fisher’s book The Gastronomical Me, which offers insights into the “mysterious ways our hungers and histories intertwine.”:

When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied. . . and it is all one.

I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.

I think that’s lovely, and true.

If I wrote about only those things I now know, I suspect I’d end up writing about the same things over and over, and not very many of them at that.  Eventually I’d grow bored with my work and so, therefore, would my readers.

Some writers, like Charles Bukowski and Richard Yates, wrote almost purely autobiographical work, of course, and good for them, but I feel blessed by my magpie nature.  How else would I have burrowed into the 1930s and the particular form of mental illness that was such a strong metaphor for The Great Depression in my first novel, The Stubborn Season?  Or what about the war correspondents and the events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (countries I have yet to visit) in my second novel, The Radiant City?  I am hardly old enough to have lived through the 30s, nor have I ever been a conflict-zone journalist, never mind a male one.  I am certainly not a young man growing pot and trying to survive the horrors of an abusive childhood, as Albert does in Our Daily Bread.  Then again, Flaubert wasn’t a bored, love-starved housewife, Jeffrey Eugenides isn’t a hermaphrodite and I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov was a child molester.

A writer’s job, in my opinion, isn’t only to write about what we know, it’s to write about what fascinates us, what we’re obsessed with, curious about, intrigued by.  Paying attention to those cravings leads us to write about subjects that matter to us.

What if you’re fascinated by, say, physicists or astronomers or cops, but you are none of those things.  Fine. In fact, wonderful!  Time for research.  One of the great pleasure of writing is research — an excuse to spend hour after hour, day after day, diving headfirst into books on any number of subjects, following a trail of sparkly bits through the library stacks, making notes, feeling that flicker of excitement when I find something new . . .

The San Fanciso Monastery Library in Lima, Peru. Think about spending a few months there doing research!

I have learned more from the long hours of research I’ve done for various books than from any other kind of education. Even if I start researching a book and then find it isn’t going to pan out, who cares?  What wonderful things I’ve learned in the process!

So, the next time you find yourself hungry to know about how the railway was built or what happens in the tunnels beneath New York City or what’s it would be like to be a sapper in World War II, go ahead a spend some time investigating.  Who knows where you might be led by what you don’t yet know?


  1. Vesper on November 11, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Here’s my video response: http://www.ted.com/talks/elif_shafak_the_politics_of_fiction.html

    This woman is amazing, and she talks about writing what we don’t know. Writing from pure imagination.

    • Lauren B. Davis on November 11, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      Thanks, Kristen.

  2. Renee Miller on November 14, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Excellent post, Lauren. I’m always a bit frustrated with the advice “write what you know” because I think new authors misunderstand the meaning behind it. Certainly we wouldn’t write about things we don’t know, but we can learn these things. The most enjoyable part of writing for me, is exploring what I don’t know so I can use it in my novels.

    Your advice makes much more sense, IMO. To “write about what fascinates us, what we’re obsessed with, curious about, intrigued by” opens so many doors.

  3. Karleen Bradford on November 22, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Good post, thank you. I have written several books for young people and, when I do school visits, I always bring up this point. I tell the students that I change the words around. Instead of “write what you know”, I say “Know what you want to write about.” And that involves research, which often elicits a groan. But I regard research the same way you do. I tell students it’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, or following the clues in a mystery novel. I find that I get so caught up in research that it’s often hard to stop and actually get down to the writing.

    Which is exactly where I am right now. Have been researching a novel set in Canada at the time of Confederation and have been immersed in research for it. Time to start writing it.

    One other benefit of research–you learn so much about so many things. I’ve learned something new with every book I’ve written.

    • Lauren B. Davis on November 22, 2011 at 11:32 am

      Thanks so much, Karleen. Your students are lucky to have you! And best of luck with your novel. Keep me posted, won’t you?

      • Karleen Bradford on November 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

        I will, Lauren. Thank you for your interest. It’s not due out until 2013, though.

        • Lauren B. Davis on November 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm

          The time will go by quickly, Karleen. Who’s publishing it?

  4. Leslie on November 28, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Very good points. I went to a panel at a convention earlier this year and one of the authors on the panel put it this way: “don’t write what you know, write what you can find out”. Certainly we would be boring if we only wrote what we knew about. Learning something new is half the fun!

    • Lauren B. Davis on November 28, 2011 at 5:21 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Leslie. I agree with you and the panelist entirely!!

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