WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?

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I’m an old retired fart, and I’ve found that the more I learn, the less I know. I like writing about my expanding ignorance, and can’t help wondering if it’s just me or something taking over the entire universe.

I live off the beaten track in an agricultural halfway-between-too-big­-and-too-small town where most of the locals are pretty conservative in all meanings of the word. Ironically, at least partly the result of being an observer of the setting of my life and of the drama that plays out around me on a daily basis, I have, over the last quarter century, developed this ongoing problem with diagnosing truth and reality.

The problem pivots on a sharp fulcrum of knee-jerk perception and self-interest. It’s been a fascinating topic of contemplation and a reliable source of income for most of my life.
I used to make a living selling statistically verified bits of truth– truth obtained using the scientific method. A method that is only selectively acknowledged and accepted in the community I live in.

Folks hereabouts embrace the living heck out of the scientific method when it saves their lives down at the hospital or pharmacy, or increases the yield of their crops, or brings high definition TV into their homes, or rings their cell phones or microwaves their popcorn. Some other times, not so much.

Now, I would call the truths that underpin the functionality of these conveniences (a lot of folks would call most of them necessities) facts. But using the same approach produces abject denial of many other scientifically fashioned conclusions.

The age of the earth, the safety or danger of various chemicals, the occurrence or timing of historically recorded events, the principles of genetics or molecular biology, ecosystem mass balances etc. seem to be topics over which one’s views on property rights, politics, religion, or any other flavor of simple personal preference or philosophy hold veto power.

Maybe we aren’t so different from folks anywhere else in this regard. Dunno. I get the feeling this may be a part of the human condition everywhere.

I personally refuse to believe in TiVo, twittering, and electronically transmitted late payment notices. And when a business tells me my money or satisfaction is somehow governed by one of their enterprise’s “policies” I am quick to communicate that it is my policy to subordinate their policies to my needs. This generally proves to be a rather radical concept for those introduced to it for the first time.

Truth and reality, I have learned, are not always the same thing. I have to remember this when I write– especially when I write so-called nonfiction. As for “creative non-fiction,​” well, now we are really into mind-bending territory, aren’t we? I’m just starting a semester college course in that subject. It should be interesting.

In my lexicon, reality is non-negotiable, even if we don’t know, cannot perceive, or refuse to acknowledge it. When your pickup stalls on the railroad tracks, the truth may be that train traffic is so sparse on that stretch of rail that you’d be a fool to worry about it. The reality is, if a train is coming, you’re dead.

Truths are cheap. They are also negotiable. Reality is priceless and immutable, even if hard to believe.

At least I think that’s true.

On the other hand, as a writer, I’ve found that fiction is often truer than non-fiction, even though the entire tale may be a pack of lies. Go figure.

There is this cliché that tells us to write what we know. I’ve given a few talks to fellow writers endorsing the conventional wisdom of that cliché. But in quiet moments in front of the keyboard I often have second thoughts about it.

If I had strictly adhered to that advice I would have given up on writing fifty years ago. As often as not, it’s what I don’t know that keeps me writing.

As Theodore Sturgeon put it, “Ask the next question.​” He was talking about writing fiction (particularly science fiction in his case). I’m beginning to think, though, that it applies to all writing.

Is anyone really all that interested in reading what they already know? And are writers really interested in writing what they already know? Especially fiction writers, who often don’t know what comes next until their fingers push down the next key?

More and more I’m beginning to think that maybe all writing stems from questions, rather than answers (except, possibly, video recording device manuals or road signs, and I even have my doubts about them).

It’s what keeps me coming back to the keyboard over and over again, whether the questions are aimed at explorations of reality through fiction or non-fiction.

I’m curious. That’s a major reason why I write. Maybe not the only reason, but as I analyze my own writing over time, it’s clear to me that my curiosity about what I don’t know drives my creativity as much as my knowledge base.

“Write what you know,​” may be a short hand for “let your writing define the limits of what you know, and then dare to journey past it to explore, to chart new territory, to see what happens, or what doesn’t happen.​”

I don’t really know if that’s the case or not. But then again, it IS why I wrote this blog entry.

Cheers,
Bob

P.​S. That’s Barry Longyear in the photo, teaching about story structure at Odyssey 2008.

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