>Part One of My Manifesto of Good Writing
The first piece of advice most writing instructors give is “write what you know.” I have come to realize that this is possibly the worst advice anyone can give.
In my manifesto of good writing, I’m changing that rule to “write what you feel.” In other words, write solely about subject matter that I respond to in a visceral manner. This kind of response is guaranteed to result in writing that comes out in a white heat, and that I find myself able to sustain through the working and reworking of the material until it says exactly what I want it to say.
This is not the same as writing about subjects I have strong opinions about. I care about many issues, and there are writers who write very well about important issues, I’m just not one of them. While I think logically, I find it very tedious to present the many points in arguing for or against anything. I’m not interested in persuading anyone about anything. I won’t presume to tell you how to live your life, point-by-point ,when I am no expert at living my own.
And I’m not talking about writing as therapy, though that certainly has its place and value, both for personal growth and sometimes for an audience’s enjoyment. But writing as therapy often functions as little more than a first draft in self-knowledge. The craft of writing takes that first draft much, much further. Transformation into art happens after the healing, and sometimes not at all.
Also, writing what I feel does not mean that I even plan on writing a tell-all memoir. It’s not necessary to stick to the strict facts about my life when writing what I feel. I also have no plans to take emotional, or other, risks to create the adrenaline some people find necessary to convince them they are alive and provide thrilling subject manner for their next best seller. No and no and no.
It’s simpler than that. And more complex at the same time. For example, in my professional life, I am ruled by the clock. I manage projects and I am required to always be aware of deadlines – how much time has passed and how much time as left, divided up by what tasks need to be completed. A few weeks ago, as my husband and I were heading out to dinner on a Friday night, I was obsessing about how much time we would have before we needed to get back and pick up the kids from an activity they were attending, and I fretted whether we really had time to get away at all, even for an hour. He told me to stop, I didn’t have to worry about time and deadlines, we’d be fine. It was then I realized how caught up I was in my workday mentality of time and deadlines. And how irritating that can be, to not be able to leave that world behind me, forget about it, and let go. This is obviously an area of my life I respond to in a visceral manner. It can keep me awake at night, watching the clock, wondering when I will fall asleep. The last few hours before as a project is being completed and the clock is ticking down can drive me crazy. It is, therefore, a ripe and unusual area for exploration through creative writing.
What are emotions, after all, but pre-language expressions? Not primitive by any means, they are simply responses that originate from a non-language part of our brain. It’s our emotions that trigger the early warning system, allowing us to fight or flee when necessary. Articulating always comes later, whether it’s a cry for help, a declaration of love, a fervent prayer, a solemn oath, or the panicked freak-out that time is slipping away.
So I’m going to take my own advice and write what I feel even if that means my subject matter is as common as the clock. I will, in fact, write about what I don’t know about time, not what I do know, because I know more than I should and find it hard to forget about it, even when I want to, and that is precisely what irritates me about time.
I won’t go so far as P.J. O’Rourke in outright condemning “write what you know” teachers, since what works for me may not necessarily work for everyone. But I’ll end this part of my manifesto with his words.
“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t know. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”