Write What You’re Curious About
My first writing instructor told me I should “Write what you know.” It sounded like good advice. I followed it. I wrote a lot of boring material. Deeply snooze-worthy stuff. I went for long periods without writing at all. Talked about it, but I wasn’t inspired. I spent years grinding away in a quagmire of self doubt.
My writing was ordinary. This happened and then that happened and then more this. I wrote what I knew. Chronological. Logical. Reporting. No one wanted to read it, not even me.
Here’s how it happened. I stumbled onto the theme: self doubt. I knew, of course, that I’d suffered from self doubt for decades, but suddenly it hit me. What I didn’t know – and wanted desperately to know – was why. Why was my life infested with self doubt? I thought about the question, and it struck me, wham over the head, that I could, I should, in fact, I had to, use my writing to discover why I hung around with self doubt, helpless as an alcoholic alone with an open bottle of single malt scotch whiskey.
I quit writing about what I knew. I began to write about what I didn’t know, what I was curious about, what I wanted to discover. I sat up straighter. Words and images and scenes and dialogue tumbled in. I created a mind map. https://imindmap.com/how-to-mind–map/ In the center of my map, I wrote the two questions that I felt compelled to answer.
- Why have I been plagued for so many years with such debilitating self doubt?
- What is the relationship (if any) between self doubt and actual ability / achievement?
In no time, I created sub branches off these central questions.
- Primary childhood scenes in which I experienced “pre-conscious” doubt
- Adolescent scenes in which I became (obsessively) conscious of self doubt.
- Adult scenes in which self doubt undermined my joy, ambition and success
- How self doubt became my default state of being
- Psychological theories about self doubt
- Family dynamics that might cast light on my struggles with self doubt
- Linkages between childhood scenes and later events
Soon I had a web of networks and connections among the seven sub themes. Scenes flowed onto the page. Family member’s voices echoed in my ears: my mother, over and over, “Oh, I’m such a dunce.” I remembered how I’d felt, exploring my grandfather’s closet. I smelled my mother’s cooking and wandered the dark halls of our early home. I awoke in the morning more eager than ever to get to the writing. Fire in the belly like never before. Fire in the writing too.
Looking back, I see it as a blinding flash of the obvious. But it wasn’t always so obvious. I had labored for so long, through two novels and hundreds of rejections, thinking about how I should only write about what I knew. When I wrote about what I wanted to discover, I felt like Luke Skywalker with a new lightsaber, my words. Free! Liberated! Magical! Two years later, my memoir, King of Doubt, was published and promptly started winning awards.
The moral of the story, in case you missed it: Don’t waste time on what you know. Write what you want to discover. Write what you’re curious about. Write where your imagination and your heart call you to be. Dream up the questions and themes you want to learn about, then write, write, write.
Excellent advice; as some one in a similar predicament, I followed the same path. Used writing to uncover likely causes, then used writing to formulate solutions, followed by trial and error on the implmentation front followed by more writing to discover the blocks still remaining.
Lots of us in that predicament, right? I’m convinced that “writing to discover” is the way to go – a bit scary, no doubt, but so much for exciting, revealing … and it makes for better writing. Good to hear from you, Mark
Great post, Peter. I had finished a post yesterday with reference to “writing what you know” and how through that comforting, guarded notion, I could come up with some good stuff. But I failed to realize that I could write even better with writing what I didn’t know and needed to learn. Perhaps vulnerability and allowing yourself to explore is key here.
I think so, Nancy. I mean, nothing wrong with writing about what you have experience with, but I think that pushing beyond what you know, into the “discovery zone” is often what makes for fresh, alive, exciting writing. At least, that how it works for me. Thanks for your comment.
Great post, Peter.
Peter, I appreciated the questions of your mind map. I’m writing a memoir which explores the theme of shame in my life.
When reading your questions, I realized I could replace the word self-doubt with shame, and use the map as a guide as I continue writing. Thank you so much!
Thanks, Marjorie. Glad it’s helpful. Shame and self-doubt must at least be kissing cousins. I wish you well with your memoir, please keep me posted.