A Guest Post: Anna White

Today, Anna White joins us with her thoughts on the old adage “Write what you know”. I loved hearing from all of you and learning more about your perspective on the writing life over the last few weeks. As the next week unfolds, I’ll return to my semi-regular posting on whatever strikes my fancy, which will likely include any eavesdropping I’ve indulged in while in the US. I love this country, even with all of its controversy and heartbreak. It will always be my heart’s home.

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Why I hate “Write what you know”

The most ubiquitous writing advice in the world is write what you know. I get what this is trying to say, but I hate it. I’ve spent my whole life learning what I don’t know. These wide empty places are my ‘negative space.’ The knowledge of all that is unlearned or unknowable, keeps things in perspective.

I grew up in a culture of black or white. Right or wrong. There were rules for everything. How you should look. Who you should talk to. Where you should go. What you should think. Everything could be known and tagged and boxed into place.

There was little room for uncertainty or doubt or hesitancy, and yet that’s where I lived. Even at a very young age, I saw from the gray place. The gray place that for me wasn’t so much a thin, dangerous line as a vast ocean holding the narrow black and white shores away from one another.

The more I read, the more I write, the more I make connections, the wider my ocean becomes. Not that I’m ignorant. I have degrees and certifications and training. My brain is full of things that I know.

And yet, with all the things that I know, there is so little that I Know.

Capital K Knowing, that’s the Knowing that matters: the sureness of goodness, a grasp of faith, a belief in the unfailing chaos of life, and the security that out of that chaos, improbably, comes love. This is the Knowing that is slippery, hard to hold on to when I am falling. It’s so much easier to grab for the things I know, facts and figures and statistics and rules. But there’s no heart in that. No healing.

I have to let go of my small knowing, and let my weight carry me down into the deep where my heart and soul catch on fire. Rilke wrote, “things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable. They happen in a space that no word has ever entered.” This is truer than true. How can words convey the vast Knowing waiting to be discovered?

So I encourage you, writers, to throw away that advice to write what you know. Turn in, look into the blinding burning of your heart. Close your eyes, and see what patterns dance there, what impressions are left by that light. Write that. Use your words to sketch an outline of that place. Build a bridge that can carry me, not into your Knowing, but into my own.

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Thanks so much for adding your voice to the conversation, Anna. Hop on over and visit Anna at her blog 2Day I Choose.

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  • I think in the writing of what you don’t understand helps you to understand. You put the chaos in your brain on paper and try to fit the puzzle pieces together. In the midst of this I think we learn more about that that confuses that we can not really get our arms around. The writing moves us closer to understanding and closer to what we feel and think about a subject. The unknown only becomes known as we move into it and through it. I think it also takes treads of stuff you do know and attaches itself to the unknown to help make the picture clearer.

    • You’re right Mark. Sometimes my brain is just full and spinning, and it isn’t until I write about it that things settle down.

  • Kimberly Amici

    I love the idea of abandoning “writing what you know”. I participated in 31 Days and chose to write something I wanted to learn more about…grace. I did a study, read books and prayed about it and then shared what I was learning in my posts. I loved it and it so motivated me to write because I was excited about what I was l learning.

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