Seventh-grade English teachers and weekend writing workshop leaders tell us to “write what we know.” To write what we know. To write what I know. That familiar advice sounds so strange when you repeat it to yourself.
First of all – what do I know? How do I know what I know? There’s a whole branch of philosophy that tackles that called epistemology, but for everyday life the answer is generally “What do I know? Not as much as I’d like to think", and, “How do I know what I know? Well, if I spend too much time on that tangle I’ll never use any ink in my pen.”
The list of things I know is not a long one. It’s more interesting to me to write about what I don’t know, what I’m not sure about. Writing is a way of mapping my relation to the world, the parts I’m surefooted in, the parts I’ve glimpsed on the fly, the parts I’ve been afraid to look at too closely. Writing about anything important is like trying to sketch a landscape. As you ask yourself, “What do I see?” you are sure to notice things on the horizon and within arm’s reach that you didn’t see before. The questions I don’t know the answers to are the ones I want to think about and write about.
Why exactly do I pray? Why do people who have just fallen in love want to say they’ll be together forever? Why is an empty circle a symbol of creativity? When I write about those thoughts, I’m not writing about what I know; I’m writing what I care about, what I want to pay attention to. Writing is the process of knowing the world and knowing myself better. I want to tell the English teachers and workshop leaders, “It’s not ‘Write what you know,’ but ‘Write in the service of knowing.’”