Part two of Katey Schultz’s Mythbusting series is here! In this essay, Katey tackles on of the most pervasive myths writers hear all the time: Write what you know.
Write what you DON’T know
“Big name” authors at literary festivals don’t always make themselves available. I’ve rarely seen keynote speakers show face before or after their own event. But elusiveness was not James Salter’s way at the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival. When we took this photo together, no one knew James would die eight months later. But this isn’t a story about missed chances. This is a story about how “write what you know” worked for one writer, and “write what you don’t know” worked for the other—and how both used similar tools along the way.
First, he described imagination as that thing we employ when we don’t know the answer, or don’t know what comes next. He talked about “inventing information” or moments in a novel in order to bring an idea to completion. But–and here’s the second point he made–for an author such as himself, imagination is secondary to “knowledge and observation.” Knowledge and observation, James said, guided him through nearly everything in life and in his drafts. Because his fiction didn’t stray too terribly far from what he’d experienced, that made sense. “Write what you know” is what James Salter was taught, it’s what he did, and it worked well. (“Well” is putting it mildly; the man penned over ten books, which is to say nothing of his screenplays or literary awards.)
But “write what you know” never made sense to me. Quite frankly, it sounded boring. Write what you don’t know, on the other hand, feels like an invitation, an opportunity. When I write what I don’t know, and my characters embody that sense of humbleness and discovery as well, then we’re both angling for the unknown. In so doing, we end up with “knowledge,” as James might have said, but the writing had to happen first.
Exchanging a few words after my reading, Salter slipped his 80+-year-old hand into mine and looked me in the eyes. “I could stand to read more of your work,” he smiled. “Impressive.”
When James took the stage for his main event, I was one of the first to raise my hand: “How does your imagination work?” I asked.
My first book is a collection of stories that questions the stereotypes of modern war by focusing on individuals, their motivations, and the impossible decisions they face. That this book has won a number of awards feels less like proof of my value as an author, than as confirmation of the power of the human imagination—I am a civilian who has never traveled to Iraq or Afghanistan and who did not conduct extensive interviews to complete my work of fiction. My desire to write the book sprung from a sense of duty to understand what going to war really meant, and to find the common threads binding us together regardless of what “side” we’re on, what nationality we claim, or which cultures suffocate or uplift us. I looked closely, asked myself hard questions, and took the leap. Three years later, Flashes of War was praised for its precision and heart and is still taught at over a dozen universities and institutions, including the United States Air Force Academy. Six years later, my novel Still Come Home was released, also set against the backdrop of our current conflicts.
But I haven’t forgotten James, and it’s not just because of his literary accomplishments or his kindness. I haven’t forgotten him because, until we met, I had never thought of placing knowledge, observation, and imagination on the same spectrum. If these three things are interdependent, as James suggested, then a writer can increase one, lower the other, or combine several in equal measure depending on the needs of a particular story.
Take observation, for example. For a writer, observation is always there, the logbook pages always filling. It’s so essential to who we are, we can’t separate ourselves from it. However, observation can mask as knowledge—as fact—and in so doing, stories can fall victim to their authors’ blind spots. What we observe is not the same as fact, and should not limit what we can put on the page. When revising, if we question our early drafts and the observations they depend upon, we can crack something open. We can see what we were blind to previously, and “turn up” the imagination to help us lean into the unknown. From there, of course, we keep writing…and for me, at least, that’s when story happens in fresh ways and I feel like I’m really cruising (It’s when most of my students say they’re cruising, too.)
Similarly, if we’re drafting headlong into a new piece that’s all heart and imagination, but very little structure or refined observation, at a certain point we have to take a step back. We have to turn down the imagination and make space for knowledge. What are the words on the page, in draft form, suggesting about the human predicament? What knowledge will help persuade the reader that this is so? What craft tools have we observed, when reading like writers, that will help us achieve the right impact at the right time, for this particular piece?
Now, on tour for Still Come Home, when people ask me about the research I had to complete in order to create realistic military and civilian characters in a war zone, I tell them I studied the arc of a sentence, the building blocks of story, and the long exhale of a prolonged moral decision. I tell them my primary sources were LIFE and BOOKS and when I say this, I am not being the least bit ironic. If they look perplexed, I start to tell them about James.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free craft lesson and resource guide The 5 S’s That Will Help Get You Published at www.kateyschultz.com.