Say, what? How can I write what I don’t know? I always heard the advice, “Write what you know.”
Absolutely. Do write what you know, but if that is all you write, you aren’t going to learn much, and learning is one very important reason for writing.
I came to this conclusion with disarming lack of speed. I have written and graded more essays and term papers than the IRS could count. Okay, that’s hyperbole. The reason I wrote and assigned literary composition was that I believed it was a powerful learning process. I was right, it is.
Even though I believed in the value of writing as a learning tool at a cognitive level, I never grasped it emotionally until last week. My writing group, Write on the Edge (.org) asked me to speak and sign my books, Beyond the Blood Chit. My premise was that writing this novel became a part of my combat PTSD recovery process through learning.
The idea isn’t new. We can find quotes by famous authors referring to writing as an adventure in exploring uncertainty. No, I’m not going to give references, but I would love for you to provide some in comments on this blog.
We can only write what we know. If we try to write what we don’t know, we fail. Is this a paradox?
We begin to write what we know in an effort to explore what we don’t know, and this may be conscious or subconscious. It is a valid inquiry process. We start with the known and use it to illuminate the unknown. Writing is the tool through which we view and learn, or at least flirt with the possibility of learning.
Somewhere during the experience of writing this novel, originally called, “LG”, I recognized that it was about combat PTSD recovery. I admit that this recognition was empowered through a VA recovery program including individual and group counseling. It was also potentiated and developed by personal friends willing to discuss their own experiences and views.
Like other activities of life, learning is a dance. We learn, use what we learn to inquire, learn more, and continue to inquire, constantly changing our minds. Sometimes we add new knowledge to old. Other times we modify what we believe to accommodate new tenets. Occasionally we reject old, dear, beliefs to acquire new and conflicting ideas. Writing helps us to do all of these.
So, I started writing a story called “LG” about a Vietnam Veteran, like me, who was trapped in some kind of internal dilemma. Blood Chit emerged as an icon for part of that confusion, the perceived duty to serve, help, and even rescue others. My friend’s tattoo of a daggaboy (retired cape buffalo bull) became the symbol for the other part, the longing for escape from this duty to my private water hole of safety. None of this was in my mind when I began writing, and some only emerged well into the rewriting process.
Because of this writing, only because I finished the novel and tried to market it, did I find out what the real story is about. That’s a lot for this old man to learn.
Finally, by agreeing to discuss the writing process with my colleagues, I have come to understand another piece of the mystery. What we learn depends upon our willingness to doubt, wonder, and work the processes of inquiry. It depends upon a commitment to write what we do not know.
Inquiry is not for the feint of faith or those convinced of their own certainty, but for those who want to know more.
For all people with a longing need to know, I personally recommend writing. Enjoy the journey.