Write What You Know Nothing About
Writing advice contrary to everything you read on Medium
I have come across hundreds, if not thousands, of how-to, self-help, writing advice articles on Medium. Seriously, it is mind-boggling how many there are. And every last one of them give the same advice: Write what you know about.
Given my contrarian nature, it should be no surprise that I offer the exact opposite advice: Write what you know nothing about.
It’s not that I’m ‘opposed’ to writing what you know about. That is fine advice and there’s nothing wrong with it…. if you want to stay forever in your tiny little writing box.
First, I should admit that none of my novels or other books have ever appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists and therefore I am profoundly unqualified to even give writing advice. (I suspect the same is true for many of the other Medium writers who write writing advice articles.) And that is why I don’t normally write writing advice articles. I just don’t feel that I am qualified to given my lack of widespread success.
And that is exactly why I felt the need to publish a writing advice article; because I obviously know nothing about successful writing.
Like so many writers, I wrote about what I knew for many, many years but eventually realized that I had written myself into a rather small, narrow box. I needed to challenge myself and break out of that box. I had to write about something I knew nothing about.
Then I read an interview with author Tom Robbins. Robbins was asked why so many of the protagonists in his brilliant novels were female given that he was male. He replied that by writing a story through the eyes of a female it helped him to keep his ego from creeping into the story. His male characters always seemed to take on aspects of his own ego and personality and history. With a female character he was forced to step outside of himself and see things from a different perspective and that helped force him to grow as both a person and a writer.
The proverbial light bulb went off in my noggin upon reading that.
Up until that juncture in my writing career all the protagonists in my novels and in almost all my short stories were male. And yes, they all absorbed parts of me into their character. I wanted to step out of the story I was writing and I wanted to step out of the box I had written myself into.
So I decided to write a novel about a female country western singer/songwriter. Everything in that sentence is something I know nothing about. Being of the male persuasion, I know nothing about being a female. I also know nothing about music or writing music. And country western music is just about my least favorite kind of music there is (outside of polka music). Country western music is something I know nothing about.
So essentially I challenged myself to write an entire novel about things I know nothing whatsoever about. It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did for the sake of my writing. I learned so much and I grew so much. And I personally consider that novel to be my very best book (so far).
It sure wasn’t easy, though. I spent over a year writing that book. I ended up doing a good deal of research. I even, God forbid, started listening to country western music. (I haven’t listened to a single country western song since finishing the book.) I did research on music and spoke with musicians and I even had to do some geography research. If the aforementioned challenges I presented myself with weren’t enough, I decided to set most of the story in the state of Arkansas. I’ve spent a total of 36 hours of my entire life in the state of Arkansas and those 36 hours were spent at the opposite end of the state from where the story took place. I talked to several people from Arkansas and I looked at lots of pictures and studied maps but I essentially wrote about a place that I had never been to.
But the hardest part was writing about being a woman. I have been male my entire life so I really don’t know anything about being a woman. I was forced to step completely outside of myself and use the sheer force of my imagination to step into the mind, body and soul of a woman. (Every man should do that for a year.) It certainly was not easy but it was profoundly therapeutic and cathartic and enlightening and generally mind-blowing.
As an example of some of the writing challenges I faced, there is a certain chapter in the book in which the female protagonist goes over to her boyfriend’s apartment to break up with him. A female breaking up with a male is usually not the same as a male breaking up with a female. I really had to get inside her to know what she was thinking and feeling.
After the chapter was finished I felt I did a pretty good job of it but upon rereading it I felt there was something missing. It wasn’t anything major. There just seemed to be some small aspect of being female that I was not seeing. I couldn’t figure it out. I was stuck.
For the next few days I watched women very intently; not the way most men leer at women but rather I was looking for some female characteristic or idiosyncrasy that I could add to the chapter to make it more real. And then I was in a retail store standing in line at the checkout counter when I noticed the woman ahead of me frantically digging in her purse for something. Whatever she was looking for she could not find and she was on the verge of become hysterical.
That’s when it hit me. I forgot to give my female protagonist a purse!
Women spend a lot of money on designer purses. They don’t do it to impress men but rather other women. A woman’s purse is the very, very last thing a man will ever notice about a woman. We just don’t care about their stupid purse.
I’ve never understood why women feel they simply must carry a purse with them everywhere they go. When I go places I like to travel light. I don’t carry luggage around with me; which is what a purse is. When I go out everything that I need is located in the front pockets of my jeans and if something doesn’t fit in my pockets then it doesn’t come with me.
It was a part of my male thinking that I hadn’t stepped out of.
So I went back to my desk and rewrote that chapter, giving my female protagonist a purse. The purse ended up playing a very significant and pivotal role in that chapter. Rereading it, the chapter was now perfect. I don’t know anything about purses and to make the chapter sing I had to write about something I know nothing about!
That is just one example from one particular writing experience. Since then I have endeavored to challenge myself and write about things I know nothing about. After all, writing is a form of self-education. We write in order to learn and grow and to continually expand our perception. Writing should be an adventure. If we’re writing only about what we know with the sole purpose of getting on the New York Times bestseller lists (or accruing vast quantities of green hearts) then we are just writing ourselves into a box and learning and growth stops.
Don’t fall into that trap. Write what you know nothing about.
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