Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Write What You Know...or Feel

We've all heard the dictum: "Write what you know." We've also heard all writing is "biographical in nature". And so we tie these two phrases together. Often these words have been used to tell writers who are writing outside their experience that perhaps they should stay with the familiar. A blue collar worker writing about life and death in the arctic circle? A teacher in a small town writing about mountain men in the early eighteen hundreds? What?

Perhaps we need to examine the above dictums from slightly different perspectives. Perhaps we should listen to Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Perhaps writing "what we know" isn't a concrete direction about environment, but a direction to peer within, to seek the truth of the internal. Writing "what we know" is allowing ourselves to experience an emotion, to feel it truthfully and deeply, and then to convey that feeling through the written word.

If we don't "know" the feeling of isolation, if we have never felt that, then it is difficult to convey that feeling. If we don't "know" the feeling of joy or the feeling of profound sorrow, then we can't share that feeling with a reader. However MOST ADULT WRITERS KNOW A TREMENDOUS SPECTRUM OF EMOTIONS. So, the key, the key is to be able to tap into your feelings and communicate those feelings through words to your reader; to write so that your readers are able to feel what you feel. When that happens your writing assumes a mantle of truth.

Steinbeck wrote: "No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself. " Writing is about knowing yourself. Then, it's about helping others know you while at the same time identifying with universal traits.

"Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other.
"--William Faulkner.


Zoe Winters said...

This is so so spot on. I think self awareness is an important tool in any writer's tool kit, and personal emotional honesty makes it easier to convey that to the reader.

Emory Rundle said...

That sounds really good, and I think that it also goes for acting. You can only act what you know.

L.A. Mitchell said...

This is a great perspective on the "write what you know" idea that's spoonfed to us. You're right-any setting/idea/occupation can be thoroughly researched, but if someone hasn't experienced love or extreme loss or bliss, they are on the outside looking in.

spyscribbler said...

The Steinbeck paragraph, what he said and what you said. That's it. That is totally it.

GREAT post.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Zoe I have started reading a book on creativity and genius and certain things in the first two chapters sparked this post. I will probably be making a good many posts about creativity in the coming month.

Emory, I think all creative and expressive people have commonalities in thought process and paradigm.

LA, with the internet, research is a breeze, and a writer should be able to get at least the fundamentals of a topic or a setting. I know one would be writer who has been researching the history of an area for six months. I tried to tell him that he should think in terms of story and character first, but I get the feeling the process of researching is probably more important to him than the expression of self.

Spy, why does The Steinbeck Paragraph sound like the name of spy novel?

Charles Gramlich said...

I like what Steinbeck said and agree absolutely. I think it's "write what you can learn." If you don't know something, you're right, it might not come over as authentic. But most of us can learn about things and then write about them.

Lana Gramlich said...

Good advice!

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I agree with you and will add a statement, which is an echo of the post. You can learn about the concrete things, but not too many people can settle down and say: "I'm going to research an emotion." I think life experience, regarding emotional content, is critical.

Lana, thank you.

Vwriter said...

And the religious imagery adds that feeling of divine truth!

What about another direction? That the act of creating is the act of finding ourselves. If we truly know ourselves, there is not a lot of the internal tension that provides the drive to create. We sublimate that tension by writing, and, as we do so, we learn and begin to understand ourselves.

Steinbeck wrote that we should use that understanding to improve ourselves. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he said, "I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of men and women has no dedication nor any membership in literature."

Stewart Sternberg said...

Rick, outstanding. I think that is a great statement."The act of creating is the act of finding ourselves." Brilliant. God, I get chills sometimes. Seriously. Sometimes I listen to you across a table and shake my head, muttering things to myself, and sometimes I sit in awe and appreciation of your ability to challenge and offer interesting insights.

Avery DeBow said...

Amen. Nice to know the Church of Sternberg is an institution (the only one, really) that still makes complete sense.

spyscribbler said...

ROFL, it does, doesn't it? Like a Ludlum spy novel!

The Moscow Vector
The Amber Warning
The Altman Code
The Osterman Weekend
The Matlock Paper

The Steinbeck Paragraph


Stewart Sternberg said...

Avery, I appreciate the term, Cult of Sternberg. Cults are more exciting. The women get to wear 1940's hair styles and let their eyebrow hair grow to impossible depths.

Spy, The Steinbeck Paragraph. "Locked away in a vault in Berkley is a sheet of paper that is about the change the world. One man is about to expose the conspiracy and in the process will explode a major institution of American Culture. But can he live live long enough to expose.....The Steinbeck Paragraph!!!"

Donnetta Lee said...

You can only express well what you are...what you have in you. How could you give what isn't there to mete out in the first place? How many times have we heard it: Write what you know. (Or, as Charles says, what you can learn--and thus, know.) Can't wait to read your forthcoming posts on creativity.

Bernita said...

A very wise post.

Barbara Martin said...

Amen to that, and this is what I do.