Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Write what you don't exactly know

On the two-hour drive to Portland yesterday evening, the kids and I listened to Tom Ashbrook interview Josh Ritter on WBUR’s “On Point.”

Josh Ritter has long been a songwriter, and recently published his first novel, Bright’s Passage. I’m generally interested in what anyone at all has to share about the writing process, but I was particularly interested in the reflections of someone who has covered such widely differing genres.

One comment Ritter made (not having a transcript, I dare not try to actually quote him, so I’ll qualify this in advance by saying all of this is paraphrased from memory) was that while the old chestnut “Write what you know” is solid advice, he also likes to dwell on those topics about which he is puzzled – those which he does not exactly “know.” In my experience, this is a very effective insight. Occasionally I’m invited into an elementary or middle school classroom to talk about writing, and one thing I like to tell the students is “I’m now going to give you two opposite pieces of advice. Write about what you are certain of. And write about what you are unsure of. Examples in the first category: What skiing fast downhill feels like, how your grandparents’ house smells, the reasons you had fun on your last vacation. In the second category: anything that leaves you with questions or a sense of being on the fence.” (What I really mean is “a sense of ambivalence,” but in a classroom setting I'm not always sure the kids know that word.)

One of my favorite writing exercises is to start with “I’m not sure how I feel about….” There are thousands of ways to finish that phrase. Angels. Universal health care. Living in a small town. American pioneers. International travel. Visits from extraterrestrials. Anything about which your beliefs waver makes for good writing, just as anything you can describe with no sense of uncertainty at all does. Write what you know…and what you don’t.

Sometimes when I’m teaching, I call this “the Suzanne exercise,” because it reminds me of a colleague from long ago who was one of the least ambivalent people I’ve ever known. Suzanne saw everything as black and white, from people’s personalities to politics to workplace issues. She seemed to have no capacity for ambivalence at all. And not surprisingly, she was not a writer, or any kind of artist at all, as far as I remember. What could she have written about? There was nothing over which she was puzzling.

Josh Ritter feels otherwise, and so do I. Dwell in the murkiness of the not-quite-known, said Ritter on “On Point,” and I absolutely agree. The areas about which you just don’t have the answer provide the richest sources of writing material. So write what you know, but write also what you don’t.

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