My entire life, I’ve taken the writerly admonishment “Write what you know” to mean write about a life you understand— don’t try to write a story so distant from yourself that you only imagine you know what it feels like.
And I think there’s a kernel of truth to that, though I think there are plenty of examples of people writing a much bigger life than the one they knew. I think that being who you are as a writer— not trying to be someone else— that can come through in your prose. So it’s a thing worth thinking about.
But today, I’m hearing it differently. In light of my musings on structure, I’ve been thinking about why I never make progress on pieces of long fiction, past the first couple of pages. And I think it’s because I try to write the story in order. But there’s this story that I started writing just after college— I wrote an opening scene that introduced the protagonist… and then stalled. I knew the overall arc of the story, but after I introduced her, I didn’t want to leap right into the central conflict, and I didn’t know what she did next and…
it stalled. I’d have told you I didn’t know anything past who she was, but the truth was I knew what the central conflict was. If I wrote the scenes I knew (wrote what I knew), I could always come back and start to fill in. I knew some things about the antagonist and what motivated him. Not everything, but some things.
It does not go well with my personality to do things out of order. I like when things I write spring fully formed from my forehead, a la Greek myth. Not that it happens often, but it’s my preference when I get to express one. It’s messy and labor-intensive to do it piecemeal and stitch it together. Multiple drafts are not my thing. (She says, prissily. I don’t even take myself seriously when I say things like that, anymore, but it took me a long time to figure out that first-time perfection is not, mostly, a thing. A long time.)
But I’ve come to appreciate that most art is actually craft. And craft means putting in the less-glamorous work. And somehow, that doesn’t feel like less-than, to me, the way it once did.
A couple of years ago, I went to this exhibit at the Denver Art Museum of Georgia O’Keeffe’s sketches. And it wasn’t what I expected. They weren’t sketches of the big flowers for which she’s best known, nor of the Southwestern skulls and landscapes for which she’s also known. She had these kachina dolls, and she drew them over and over and over again. In different arrangements, from different angles. I didn’t, frankly, like the sketches that much, even though I love her artwork. But it said to me that she worked on her craft. Like a job. She didn’t “ship” every drawing or painting she produced, some were to learn from. And in training her hand and her eye, she enabled the things she did “ship.”
So as much as “write what you know” is about personal authenticity, it’s also about craft, to me. Write the scene you have. It may lead you to the next scene, or at least, another scene.