On "Writing What You Know"

Write what you know and know what you write. Beware of all the nooks and crannies in your writing( like the tendency of the preceeding towards english muffins, dark corners, and sex) See how your writing might hook on to the world and how it presents a world unto itself. Sometimes, writing, I know what I want as much as any man with his model right there in front of him - I have it all in my head. It's a matter of writing and discarding later everything which doesn't match the vision. Sometimes, however, reading it back, there are discarded bits which aren't like the others which have a special treasure all their own. Great edifices of philosophy have been built on the foundation of a single footnote. So, don't insist that you write about what you know you set out to, because it may not be what you know best, in the sense of a more powerful understanding of the word know.

First writing is flowering, flooding, or scratching an itch. Trying to put a lid on things only makes a mess, like putting a lid on a pot of soup that's just about to boil over. What you have doesn't appear to be about what you "know" you are trying to write about and it isn't really about the sidelines either, because you've tried to edit them out as you were writing and it's that failed effort which makes such a mess of things. Pay attention to these sidetracks, write them out, because they may represent something you really know being written outside the normal boundaries, freed of the dull rote representation which curses topics which we focus our full learned attention on. In this way and through various other freewriting techniques we may realy write about something as if exploring the craft of writing for the first time, not knowing how things are "supposed to be done". Periods properly placed do not a writer make ask e(not here) e(or here either) cummings, he's quite incompetent by the standards of many a style handbook.

The first lesson, and the first opportunity to dull ourselves is not in writing, but in seeing. "I paint, what I see." When we write what we know in the best sense of knowing, we are speaking of a special level of intimate knowledge. We are the breathless mystic flushed from the mountaintop vision. We know because our beleif is convicted utterly by the strength of the vision itself. It isn;t that we become blind with age, but rather that stop looking, except in the sense of glancing up now and again for a cursory assessment.

The world is art and beauty if we only remember how to see it that way. Take time to smell the roses. Not the way you took the time to read that sentence - a dead cliche you properly treated it as such, instantly translating it into whatever you decided it meant long ago, if anything. It's just that cursory glance I'm talking about. Take the time: "How does the smell of the rose feel?" "How deep is it?" We need to trick ourselves into thinking again, and not just functioning automatically. Otherwise we'll just spit out the same flat dull labels we filed away long ago under:Rose, smell. The beauty of poetry is that we don't feel like we're reading someone's dusty case files - unless the whole cabinet has toppled over and files have spilled everywhere and we ask again - "Quickly! What is the smell of a rose?" Scrambling, we grab what relevant files we can, some might say "sweet", but we might just as well get "musty" or "sharp". We can't just pull out the one marked "Rose, smell" and get something dull and routine like: "sweet, see also:perfume, bouquet, romantic." Deep down, if it isn't buried by mental paperwork, we know in an intense, intimate way, what the smell of a rose is - Quick! What! Answer! Words.Now.Write!

Matthew Eberle

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This page last updated:7/9/97
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