Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Write What You Don’t Know

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 2, 2010

[Writing Wednesdays is taking a break this week. Here's a favorite from last year. ]

Probably the most classic kernel of writing advice is “Write What You Know.” On the surface, that seems to make a lot of sense, and I’m sure it has worked for thousands and thousands of writers. It didn’t work for me.

When I was a beginning writer I had two literary heroes: Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway. A lot of aspiring writers in my era had those guys as heroes. Kerouac and Hemingway weren’t so much my heroes for what they wrote (though that was a big part of it); it was more the ethic under which they did their writing.

Their stuff seemed to be really true. They took it from events they had really lived, people they had really known, wisdom and insights they had garnered in real life. I admired that. It seemed manly and honorable and hairy-chested. I strove to do that myself. I hacked out three novels, none of which saw the light of publication, that were my version of that ethic. The books weren’t terrible. There was a lot of good stuff in them. But they weren’t any good either. They never rose to the level at which I could in good conscience ask another human being to read them.

What saved my life was dumping that ethic. I was living in New York City then, down to about twenty bucks, had just finished the third of those manuscripts and was showing it to friends and getting back that plastic frozen smile when I asked them what they thought of it. I was about three days away from hanging myself. Then from somewhere I got the idea to try a screenplay. For some reason, the change of medium freed me. It gave me permission to make stuff up. I decided to try a story and characters that had nothing to do with me and nothing to do with my real life.

It worked. Here’s my theory on why:

The part of us that we write from is far deeper than our everyday selves. In fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with our everyday selves. It comes from the Muse. It comes from the unconscious. It comes from some place we only tap into in dreams or intuition or inspiration.

Good things happen when we write from that place.

When we write only what we know, we limit ourselves to territory we’ve already covered. When we write what we don’t know, we launch ourselves into terra incognita. That’s where the good stuff is.

The first piece I ever did following this advice was a screenplay about prison. I’ve never been arrested; I don’t know anything about life behind bars. But when the script was done and I showed it around, people would tug me aside and whisper, “Hey, man, where’d you do time?”

That was a revelation to me. And it’s proved itself again and again. In writing, when I make something up completely, the reaction is often, “Wow, that was convincing as hell.” When I write from reality, people tell me, “Dude, I didn’t buy that shit for a minute!”

It takes a little madness to write what you don’t know. It’s like leaping into the deep end. But it’s also tremendously liberating. I’m reading a wonderful book now called Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, who for years was one of the star teachers of drama at Stanford. Her thesis is “Don’t prepare, just show up.” In other words, trust in the mystery. Open your mouth and see what comes out. I’ve heard Jackson Browne say that he writes songs to find out what he thinks about something. In other words, he doesn’t know going in.

If you’re a writer (or any kind of aspiring artist or entrepreneur) and you find yourself stuck, a good trick is to just write (or enact) something completely from left field. If you’re a man, try something in the voice of a woman. Write something from another century, from Mongolia, from Mars. Just plunge in and wing it.

I’ve found, in more than one instance, that I can write characters who are more intelligent than I am. I don’t know Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep but I’ll bet if you or I met them, they’d be the nicest, most decent people imaginable. Yet look at the range of characters they’ve played–and been completely convincing doing it. I’m sure Anthony Hopkins is a wonderful, sweet guy. But he scared the crap out of me as Hannibal Lecter.

There’s stuff “down there” in all of us. It’s vast and deep and limitless. That’s the vein we need to mine as artists and as entrepreneurs. I’ve heard start-up businessmen say the two qualities they needed most in their initial ventures were arrogance and ignorance. You gotta be a little crazy (or desperate) to write or do what you don’t know. But there’s great wisdom and magic in that act. It demonstrates faith in the universe, in the Muse, in the source of all inspiration. And that faith, almost invariably, is rewarded by the cosmos and vindicated by events. I recommend it.

[This week's signed "War of Art" goes to Patricia Ryan Madson, not for any specific quote but for her terrific book, "Improv Wisdom," which is an inspiration to me. Thanks, Patricia! Everyone else, keep sending in them quotes!]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

37 Responses to “Write What You Don’t Know”

  1. August 26, 2009 at 4:33 am

    Steve, these Writing Wednesdays are great. I look forward to reading them. I really think you should combine a story of your life and the art of writing into a book. I’d buy a case of the books as gifts. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  2. David Strom
    August 26, 2009 at 6:20 am

    Writing Wednesdays are terrific. Time for a “War of Art” blogsite in addition to “War & Reality in Afghanistan?”

    Jeff – check out “The War of Art” by Steve – you can buy a case of those!

    • August 26, 2009 at 7:49 am

      I have a first addition David. But you’re right. The WoA would be a great gift!

      • August 26, 2009 at 8:24 am

        Wow. I mean first “edition.” Too much coffee. Time to fire my editor.

  3. August 26, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Steve, ostensibly, you are discussing creation of fiction. There’s an old saying,” if you really want to learn a subject, set out to teach it.” I found that most true when responsibly taking on coaching baseball (as a basketball kinda guy), and professionally when my work migrated to designing, planning, controling, then analyzing complex training exercises centered on acts of terrorism and homeland security. As a retired Naval aviator, previously involved in flight test events and “war-at-sea” type exercises, creating realism for Law Enforcement, Fire, and Emergency Managers required a whole new education.

    As you state, I created events far otside my past experience, then with much concern had to run the scenarios past “real” folks. Amazed at their acceptance, but more at what I learned. Without real intent, re-invented my professional life. The Project White Horse endeavor/website is an “intersection” if you will of understanding out of past experience and jumping into a “deep end” I knew little about. Side note – cops and firemen are a lot like fighter pilots, go figure.

    Great stuff, keep rolling!
    Ed@PWH

  4. JC
    August 26, 2009 at 7:30 am

    As a Jackson Browne fan from all the way back (“For a Dancer” is still one of my all time favorite anthems) I was pleased to just learn from your post that JB’s read E.M. Forster, who was the first creative spirit I came across to state that: “I write in order to learn what I think.”

    Thanks for a great post, a great blog, and a great manifesto, in “The War of Art” … how helpful that book has been to my writing, and my outlook on life, is beyond words.

    Pax,

    John

  5. Daniel
    August 26, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Great posting – I wonder though, were you that good with creating fictional stuff because you had already paid your dues by writing about real life experiences? Perhaps your writing was good enough for any outlet by then – it just happened to be a screenplay that “freed” you?

  6. August 26, 2009 at 7:35 am

    Few things please a writer more than having her work cited by one of her heros. Thank you for mentioning IMPROV WISDOM as an example of books that lead the way into that divine realm of “terra incognita.” It is true that when we get out of our own way and trust that the Muses will descend, amazing things can emerge. Your book The War of Art has been one of my Muses along the way.
    What a pleasure to be in your company.
    Patricia Ryan Madson

  7. viviana goldenberg
    August 26, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Back from vacation!! Resistance got me hard this time! I did not do anything I had planned. Nice topic, Steven. Why do I feel that you have a hidden camera in my desk? Ha! I guess that I am having some paranoid thought, well just to be in tune with some of my patients . I am trying to get as much information about certain topic I am trying to write about (in Spanish for more than obvious reasons). Call it Resistance, as you mentioned 2 weeks ago, I just feel that I need to have a solid background to put in on paper, specially dealing with historical events. It does not look very good so far, but the more I read and research, more ideas appear.

  8. August 26, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Thank you for this timely reminder, Steven. I have shyed away from what I “don’t know,” but I invariably get the same response from readers when I write from personal experience. Perhaps something in us unconsciously holds back from the truth, when we’re basing our stories on fact and experience. Truth has nothing to do with fact in the end … it’s deeper and more complex than that. I will be brave and dive in to uncharted territory!

  9. August 26, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Great post, Steve.
    This was something I too had to learn.
    Several years ago in a creative fiction workshop at college, I wrote a short story that was, as I thought correct, pretty deeply rooted in what I know (or what I knew at 19). Hard ranch living, alcoholic patriarchs, poverty, etc. It was good, in that way of being good that’s not technically bad, but still isn’t worth a damn.
    There were two sections of the story though, which every person who read it singled out and had high praise for. Both of them were, at the time, among the biggest packs of lies I’d ever put to paper. And the readers were right, they were really good. The scenes and the characters resonated with a humanity and depth that lacked in the rest of it.
    It really shook me because I felt very uncomfortable with those scenes – They were bold-faced lies. I’d never been to Iraq, didn’t smoke cigarettes, had never killed my father. It was difficult to break from the “write what you know” model, it wasn’t comfortable. I was always scared that someone would see that I was lying.
    The next story I wrote for that semester long workshop was a leap of faith. I wrote about a heroin addict, something I’ve never been or had much association with. The next session after the copies had been passed out to the other students, one of them pulled me aside. An older guy, in his sixties, he put an iron hand on my shoulder, steered me into a corner and asked how long I’d been using. There was an honest fear in his eyes. When I’d convinced him I was clean, he quietly told me about his years of heroin abuse and addiction. He thought it almost impossible that I’d gotten some of the small details right as an outsider, hence his concern.
    After that, I was sold. Still scared of hanging it out there like that, but sold.

    I’ve always held to the idea that if you’re writing scared of what’s going down on the paper, you’re in good territory. A lot of people seem to think this applies only to when you’re writing from your past, your experiences, and delving into some deep, ugly, area of your own history. I disagree.
    In fiction, you can go into the deep, nasty, bog of your past and still be quite comfortable – There is a deception there, the ugliness of it says “I’m writing the good shit, this is really getting down to the heart of it.” When the reality is that you’re putting down material that was old and dead by the time you put it on the paper, and will be even older and deader when the reader sees it.
    I think there is more value to “writing scared”, in generalizing it to when you’re pushing yourself, at the raggedy edge and taking chances with your craft. It’s a headlong, almost falling, sensation, hanging yourself out there and risking it. In the throws of creation, taking the risks of creating a fiction, I am still scared that someone will see through my lies. I don’t know what I’m talking about, and will be seen for the sham hack rather than an artful observer of the human condition. And that’s where my best writing gets done, it seems.

    This isn’t to say I find no value at all in experience and writing what I know. More to say that, what I know isn’t the meat of what’s being created.
    Effective lies/creations/fictions that move and motivate people, contain elements of truth. Structure, framework, places to hold on that ring as true. I look at it sort of like truth is a vessel into which a creation is placed. The body, what’s important, what goes into the reader, is what it contains. It is meaningless, simply a form needed for them to pick up and imbibe from.
    Our experiences provide temper for our lies. They give us perspective and suggestions. We know the sky is blue, and the water at Coronado beach tastes salty. What we don’t know is what our characters and our story are going to do about it.

    Really enjoying Writing Wednesdays, and everything else, thank you!

  10. Kim
    August 26, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Great advice — here and in War of Art, which I only recently discovered. Thank you for your wisdom. I intend to frequent this page regularly!

  11. Claire
    August 26, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you.

  12. August 27, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Fascinating idea, going against the grain of “Write what you know.” I do like the idea of “if you don’t know it, learn it” … but as you’ve noted, research can also be a heavy form of resistance.

    And to support your theory, I was writing a new script, one based on several autobiographical elements. Stuff poured out of me, easy as pie. But I needed bridge scenes to connect elements, so I created characters and actions that never happened in real life.

    I know you can guess what happened next…

    At the table read, everyone proclaimed the entirely fictional section the best stuff in the script. The other stuff … eh.

    Back to the drawing, uh, outlining, board!

  13. Sash
    August 27, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I just picked up your book “War of Art” yesterday – knowing nothing about you. I cannot put it down! You are the messenger of what I needed to hear, you have a true gift with words. Down with RESISTANCE!

  14. August 30, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Thanks, Steve.

  15. Sue
    August 31, 2009 at 9:08 am

    I read “The War of Art” last night and could see myself throughout. No, I’m not an ex-marine, but a grandmother of three who has lived for years in an intimate relationship with the killer named “Resistance.” The novel is written and waits for a publisher; the play resides in a file cabinet and has for 20 years; the short story collection floats around in cyber space under an umbrella of anonymity called Amazon.com. And, now the muse you speak of eludes me as I begin my memoirs, which, if you are correct, already exist in that higher plane waiting only for me to bring them forth. Thank you dear friend, for your story of perseverance. I am now inspired to give you what I’ve got.

  16. Mo
    September 1, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Thank you for this.

    When I was in third grade, I wanted to be A Writer. I am not sure if anyone ever told me “write what you know”, but even at that young age, I knew that I didn’t know much! And so I figured I needed to grow up and have some sort of experiences so that I would be able to write about them.

    I suppose that’s true to some extent. Hopefully you know more and have experienced more at 15 than you have at 8. But even as I got older, I never felt I knew enough about anything in order to be capable of writing about it. Instead of giving me confidence of any sort, it made me fearful. It limited my imagination to what I did know. It closed me off.

    Even after I became an adult, I never felt I knew enough.

    I’m 41 now. I haven’t thought of being a writer in years. Aside from school assignments, I never did write much. (Journals don’t count.) And my imagination is so closed off now that I can’t imagine writing even if I tried.

    • SJB
      June 2, 2010 at 5:18 am

      Everything counts. You sound like a writer, pick up a pen.

  17. September 6, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Mr. Pressfield,
    I have just picked up your book, “The Afghan Campaign” and holy shit! It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to force myself to be reminded that you were writing about 330 B.C. and not present times.

    So far, much of the book strikes me as very eerily familiar. I was impressed with the explanation of the name Kandahar as I had not heard that before and spent quite some time in Helmand Province. I remember reading Matthias’ first experience with a cordon and search (I remember my own as well). One woman had a knife …I immediately connected with this.

    The following took place in 2002 somewhere in Pashtunistan. We were not welcomed into this particular square and had to enter by force. We seperated the men from the women and children and the men were questioned. They gave up the location of their weapons cache. While this was going on, my buddy and I were searching a room which had in it a bassinet suspended from the ceiling. Inside the crib was about a dozen soviet handgrenades. The women became restless and pushed the children away from them. The men, centered in the courtyard noticed the women becoming frantic and they themselves became irritated. I had taken up guard of the men.

    The decision was made to have the women searched, which as you can imagine was not popular among the tribal men. A grenade fell from a woman’s garments and hit the ground. She became very hostile and reached inside her garments for the other. She was attempting to pull the pin. I can only imagine that it was her husband in front of me kneeling on the ground who began cursing us and attempted to get up and fly to her relief. I hit him in the back of the head with the butt of my carbine and he fell. The grenade was wrestled from the woman and not one shot was fired.

  18. September 8, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Mr Pressfield,

    Though I am not a writer, I am an artist that stopped practising years ago who is trying to regain the passion. I am going to try to apply your lesson to my painting (at this point I need all of the help that I can get!).

    Your comment about writing on subjects outside of your world sometimes being more believable was most interesting as I have just finished reading Killing Rommel and the scene in which Rommel appears really stood out to me in its accuracy of his character.

    A few years ago I met a veteran of the RCAF that was attached to a British squadron flying Hurricanes in the Desert campaign. He was shot down on one outing but safely baled out of his stricken aircraft. Not long after landing, he was picked up by a truck of Italian soldiers (who treated him as a celebrity) and taken prisoner. After a day or two under their charge, he was told that Rommel was coming to inspect the Italian garrison and that he would have the honour of meeting him.

    Sure enough, the Italians presented him to Rommel and a brief conversation followed in which Rommel was incredulous that a Canadian flyer was in the desert. After the pilot explained how his route to the desert , Rommel shook his hand and wished him good luck.

    I could not believe how you so accurately captured Rommel in the book!

  19. September 21, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Fantastic post. I find that it’s helpful to write about what I experience and then to augment my real experiences with a slightly more intense tone.

  20. Whit
    October 6, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    If you invent two or three people and turn them loose in your manuscript, something is bound to happen to them – you can’t help it; and then it will take you the rest of the book to get them out of the natural consequences of that occurrence, and so first thing you know, there’s your book all finished up and never cost you an idea.
    - Mark Twain

  21. October 27, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Terrific!!!

  22. December 9, 2009 at 9:36 am

    God must’ve been listening this morning. You arrived in my email. Pressfield in now officially RSS’d. I don’t do that lightly. I need help with my blog. You’re my new mentor. Thank you.

  23. December 9, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Brilliant post Steven! I’m about to publish a non-fiction book based on stuff I’m madly passionate about (quantum physics and the effects of thought), yet my professional credentials don’t support this particular genre of self-help (I have a degree in busines, not a PHD in physics).

    I’ve wondered if this will impact a potential book buyers decision as to whether they would purchase a copy?

    But you make a great point; if it reads well and helps people, it doesn’t matter wether I’ve got a PHD or not…

    Cheers for the unwitting support!

    Curtis

  24. December 11, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    That’s some scary stuff!! Talk about a leap of faith!! Hey, but won’t you be found out by some one who has been there (to prison for instance) or an expert on the subject matter that your writing about??

  25. Jon
    December 30, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    I’ve always taken “write what you know” in a figurative sense. There’s only so broad a range of emotion and opinion available to us, and it’s generally the same range as the next guy has. My job as a writer is to present human experience accurately and believably — which means it’s my job to understand as much of the range as I can. I don’t have to go out and kill someone in order to depict a murderer, I just have to understand the kind of anger or indifference that leads to murder. I don’t have to go to space to write about an astronaut, I just have to understand rigorous work, pressure, then isolation and the feeling of being very small in a very big universe. As if we all don’t know that feeling. Really a writer is an actor responsible for every role in the play. He’s an Alec Guiness or a Peter Sellers.

    Everything else, the technical details, facts and theories, worlds and histories — writing these is just a matter of research. A story with compelling portrayals and shit academics can hold an audience. A story with lifeless characters and perfect facts isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Of course we strive to know and to plausibly depict both, but we all know which is the more important.

  26. January 5, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    This is a fantastic blog post! This is something that I had been struggling with lately. Whenever I think of writing a story that is emotionally charged, bleak, or emotional, there will always be a nagging sense of inadequacy in the back of my mind: I live a sheltered suburban life, am mostly happy (in fact, people say I’m the eternal optimist), and I’m only 16. I haven’t even begun my journey yet. I haven’t lived life. What gives me the right to write about hardships that I have never come close to experiencing? That’s always the nagging bother at the back of my mind.

    “The part of us that we write from is far deeper than our everyday selves. In fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with our everyday selves. It comes from the Muse. It comes from the unconscious. It comes from some place we only tap into in dreams or intuition or inspiration.”

    You put that much more eloquently than I could’ve done. That’s completely true. The Human Condition is so surprisingly broad. We think we only know a little, but in fact inside us is everything — there’s so much in common between people that if we tap deep enough, we’ll be able to understand. We’re not animals; we can empathize with others.

    I do think that such an understanding of people and situations and emotions vastly different from ourselves comes with an important condition: we need to drop our prejudices, our baggage, our assumptions. Every last one of them. We cannot achieve true empathy if we only see the world through OUR point-of-view. I think that’s the key to “writing about what we don’t know”: to be both humble and detached from ego and yet at the same time confident in the fact that deep inside, we know what it means to be Human.

  27. January 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Really it is very strange information, I appreciate it. Earlier I don’t know about it all you have explained it here very well. Thanks for sharing.

  28. January 8, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    My favorite authors were Kerouac and Hemingway too! And I always wished I could write like them but for me, since I began,I’ve always written historical fiction aside from the play I had produced in 2000, written originally when I was 18 and it had all happened. However I couldn’t write it as if it had so I had to ficitionalize the characters and could’t tell all the details it as it was. I rewrote it in ‘99 and then got it produced. “The Street: A Modern Tragedy”
    For me, I love living in ancient worlds and just imagining that I might have been there in another life-time.

  29. June 2, 2010 at 5:01 am

    I’m surprised I didn’t comment on this when you originally posted it. It’s so true.

    In my first four books, the Greg Tenorly series, I went with the “write what you know” philosophy, creating a main character who was much like myself. But after a while, I began to realize that I was enjoying the other characters more than my main character. Fortunately, I had to get into the heads of many other people that are nothing like me, including some very devious bad guys.

    In the new Rebecca Ranghorn mystery series I’m writing, my lead character is a woman. And in the first book, her sidekick is a man who may or may not be gay. They have to deal with two tough guys from New York, a brilliant black woman who is a research scientist, a topless restaurant, and other types of people and places that are not within my realm of experience.

    It is definitely going to be my best book yet. However, friends and family are going to be looking at me more strangely than ever before.

    Ah, the joys of writing fiction.

  30. Lisa Ahn
    January 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    “When we write only what we know, we limit ourselves to territory we’ve already covered. When we write what we don’t know, we launch ourselves into terra incognita. That’s where the good stuff is.”

    I love this idea! So true. Thank you for an excellent and inspiring post.

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