Write What You Want to Know: Building Cultures of Curiosity in Lit
Over my writing life, I’ve curated six guidelines for myself (or “writin’ rules”), which I’m thankful that others have found useful at times as well. They are as follows:
Write what you want to know.
When writing another context, always elevate its own storytellers. Be a megaphone to the lesser heard, not a "voice to the voiceless".
Let any given story go. If the theme is true, it will come back to you.
It's a rejection until it's an acceptance.
You are not "due" a moment in the sun—but gift them where you can.
There is no failure in having had the opportunity to do creative work.
All six have important contexts, which I look forward to exploring in future newsletters (though not every week: sometimes global humanist topics, and publishing news, and media analysis, will instead take centre stage).
Today we’re going to discuss the first—the core, I feel, of the whole affair:
Write what you want to know.
The expression cannot help but invoke its precursor, though: the classic “write what you know”—so let’s start with that one, and explore why it’s such a mess.
For some, the idea immediately causes anxiety:
“But what if I don’t know anything? Are you telling me that I have to be an expert before I can start writing? How do I get from novice to expert status as a writer without first writing from a state of at least semi-ignorance about the craft of writing itself? Is this a Catch-22? Am I even knowledgeable enough about that literary reference to be using it correctly here?!”
I mean, your mileage may vary with respect to the specific anxieties that arise—but many writers do feel the press of imposter syndrome much faster after a brush with that maddening bit of literary counsel breathing down their neck.
And maybe worst of all… how product-oriented.
Because “write what you know” implies a state of completion to our knowledge, which should immediately strike us as antithetical to the idea of knowledge itself.
Is even self-knowledge ever complete? Or are we always learning new things about ourselves as we grow, as our circumstances change, and especially as our bodies offer up new signals of need and distress over time?
How then can we ever reach a state of knowledge-sufficiency about the world?
Writing from curiosity
In an old anecdote made more recently famous by David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech quickly repackaged for market, one fish swims by two others and says, “Hey! How’s the water?” But since this is mere performative speech, a brief howdy-do serving the phatic function of language by holding open the line of communication between neighbours crossing paths, the first fish swims on without waiting for an answer—and then the second looks to the third and asks:
Even when we are deeply familiar with a topic, the idea that we know it is a tall ask, and responsible for many an overconfident and ruinous movement throughout our fragile world. Parents struggle with this at times, when the brilliant microcosms of their children suddenly reveal behaviours and beliefs that run counter to what they thought they “knew” about their offspring all along.
“What happened to my happy little girl? Where did all this anger come—I used to be able to hold you in my hands! Who’s put all these different thoughts in your head—I certainly never trained you to be like this!”
It happens with partners, too, and friends: one of the greatest causes of strife in our longstanding relationships is the sense of betrayal that can come upon us when “someone we’ve known for years” turns out to have been someone else all along—or maybe simply changed, imperceptibly but irrevocably, over time. The connections in our lives that embrace the fact that we’re always growing, always learning, always susceptible to change, are the most resilient—because they break less frequently on the wound of suddenly discovering any limits to what we thought we “knew”.
And in the context of writing? Many a good creative writing instructor recognizes all of this on some level, when they assign prompts that involve making use of items in one’s immediate vicinity. The idea, when writing a paragraph of evocative prose inspired by, say, your sofa, isn’t to perform “knowledge” of your furniture, so much as to get to know your furniture in a new light. (Or your pencil. Or a light bulb.)
It’s about learning to look with curiosity at everything in your life, and to invite fresh insight from the act of literary estrangement itself.
And yes, it can absolutely serve to write first about what’s already familiar to you—but only because estranging the familiar is often far easier than trying to make the strange in our world kindred. To reframe something that’s as good as Greek to you, something you simply “can’t fathom”, into something you can feel in your bones, too.
(With apologies to the Greek speakers, for not having a better expression for when we don’t understand something. If it helps, when the English want to swear “politely”, we also mystifyingly begin by asking people to pardon our French. We’re a silly language culture.)
And so, in service to estranging the familiar to invite fresh perspective, you might be asked by an instructor to lean into the administrivial bureaucracy of your chosen professional field, and all the quirky workarounds each of your colleagues has found to wage passive war against it. Could you write an “office story” around any of that?
Or the sights and sounds of the hockey arena, where you’ve pass many an evening supporting your kid in sports—but mostly, the smell of the yellowed pages of the used books you flip through with chill-cracked hands, bored out of your mind, high atop the old wooden bleachers. What narrative drama can you pull from that location?
Or how different heartaches sit in your body, months after the initial crisis of a split has ended: some as suffocating shame, a ball of lead in your chest sucking all breath in toward it; others a hollowness in your gut you can somehow taste in your throat, raw and acidic; others still, sense memories that graze like ghosts whole territories of skin you wish you could shed. Is there a chapbook lurking in those layers of deep feeling?
“Write what you know,” expressed more accurately—more in line, that is, with how it’s actually used to guide aspiring and struggling writers in their practice—would read: “Write what feels familiar to you, and are willing to estrange, before you even think of trying the more challenging work of making the alien kindred, too.”
But gosh, it’s so much easier, isn’t it?
To just say “Write what you want to know” instead?
“Write what you know” also has a history of weaponization, which I’d be remiss to overlook in this summary. Some use the expression as a figurative cudgel, to shame and to knock others back: Who are you to write on this theme? What’s your degree in, that you think you have the right even to broach this complicated topic?
When a discourse called #OwnVoices began years back in publishing, the original author of the term expressly did not tell people they couldn’t write on a given theme, or from a given perspective: only, that we should think long and hard about why people from certain subject-positions so very rarely gain industry recognition and financial compensation when writing worlds most familiar to them, while others not from the subject-position often benefit more when writing about the same.
But from that nuanced online comment, and its attendant call for members of the literary industry to uplift writers from specific subject-positions when writing about topics most familiar to them? Of course came discursive disaster.
Some folks, including many very well platformed writers, were quick to claim they “weren’t allowed to write about anything anymore”—the same way that some comedians still complain that “no one is allowed to make jokes anymore”.
Meanwhile, because humanity contains multitudes, yes, some people also argued in absurd absolutes, too: that a writer from X demographic could not write about a Y demographic. That everyone had to “stay in their lane” at least until everyone from within discrete demographic categories had had a chance to publish to great acclaim about their own communities. But that was all, honest! Just a few generations of rigid demographic cataloguing to right all the world’s injustices. After that, once equity had been achieved, everyone could go back to global-fusion aesthetics in their lit.
The antithesis of art
Friends, this was a tedious, if not outright brutal time in social-media literary circles. We might forget the inanity of that era, since the decline of major social media today can now be pinned on a few individuals—but in the heyday of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, plenty of people delighted in behaving badly, and in wielding the newfound industry access that social media gave us to harass, inflame, and play out highly gamified forms of activism often starkly removed from real-world need.
Very few people engaged in good faith—but how could you, when the algorithms on these platforms rewarded snap judgments and signal-boosting out of context? Over time, the online worlds of YA, genre, and some slices of lit and memoir writing devolved into ridiculous demands to know people’s personal backstories. Were you raped, to have the right to write about rape? Are you trans, to have the right to write about being trans? Were you suicidal, to have suicide in your horror plot now?
Tell us! Tell the world everything about you, and let us judge if your experiences are legitimate enough license for the story you want to tell! And do it now, before the tweet in which we challenge your book’s very right to exist has fully made its rounds!
A relatedly exhausting part of this era, though, is that it wasn’t “cancel culture” in process: not at least, “cancel culture” as it had been configured in concurrent media as a product of some nasty, mythic, leftist disease. How could it be? We live in cancel culture as a status quo: the vast majority of our labour forces are not afforded the right to political opinions at, say, their factory or Subway job, without risking summary dismissal. The water in which we all swim is one where our ability to eat, to make a living, to feel secure at all in our day-to-day lives, is more often than not contingent on “not rocking the boat”—and that usually means marginalized people not being allowed to speak about abuse, or to advocate for rights, or to push for societal reforms, or even to exist in spaces where a police officer or average citizen can just decided that someone like you shouldn’t be. That’s cancel culture, and it often leads to death.
What happened instead, in that nonsense tempest-in-a-teapot around who “gets” to write what, was instead a manifestation of the problem with recent social media: how easily, under neoliberalism, it rewarded insincere engagement and self-commodification. As our so-called public platforms skewed more decisively into a few concentrated hands of private enterprise, selling our data and manipulating our exposures for profit to their real clients, literary discourse—like political discourse—grew impoverished. Catchphrases, emoji-based marketing, hot-take-based authorial rises: all of these patterns of consumption took the place of preceding artistic talk.
(Which is not, mind you, to suggest a golden age for one and the same: history is filled with petty authorial feuds, and all manner of systemic prejudice. I only mean to stress that social media under private profit motives has amplified the worst of our natures.)
And yet, how hypocritical would I be if I left the aforementioned point on a such a flatly critical note, and didn’t instead recognize that what was revealed to us about ourselves these last two decades online is also part of the great work of “writing what we want to know”? Because for better and for worse, we were still learning a great deal about human behaviour the whole time.
Yes, it might forever feel a sordid, shameful thing, that era in our lives. Just think how much our history textbooks now need to address the amount of off-the-cuff foreign policy set or provoked by a few sabre-rattling tweets by presidents or billionaires! And we’ll have to contend with more than a few highly questionable forum usernames being attached to key events in our cultural history, too.
But as someone currently drafting a novel inspired by Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, I’m also ruefully chuckling as I imagine famous sections, like the Melian Dialogue before Athens’ slaughter of Melos, playing out in a heated Twitter exchange today—because why not? What difference would it really make, considering how little human behaviour has really changed over two and a half millennia? Could the modern medium of “the bird site” have proven any worse than the ancient one did? The one that saw a whole people then murdered or enslaved at negotiation’s close?
So many wounds in our world come from overconfidence in what we think we know—on the familial front, among loved ones, and in ever so many fields into which we pour our passions and our lives. We set ourselves up for feelings of inadequacy, reductive thinking, and betrayal when we hang everything on the idea that the work of knowing can ever be concluded, so that we can then get on with the work of writing it down.
But it’s an easy misstep to bypass—simply by letting curiosity guide us instead.
And that doesn’t mean we don’t then have a responsibility, once we embark upon the quest of better knowing a given topic or point of view through our writing. Quite the opposite! To choose to write about anything sets upon us huge expectations to do so respectfully, mindfully, and well: expectations which we will rise to best by always being receptive to feedback when we necessarily err along the way.
Writing what you want to know is not about entitlement.
It’s not about saying that we ever have the right to write without impunity—we don’t. Not ever.
Rather, it’s an assertion of literary outlook.
It’s me saying to myself: “I come to none of my writing as One Who Knows.”
So what more am I going to learn about the world today?
Be well, be kind, and seek justice where you can.
P.S. I’m going to keep sharing how Children of Doro is doing for the next while, to continue to dispel myths and hype in the indie-publishing game, as per my last post on the subject. Fellow KDP users probably also received a notice yesterday, too, about rising printing costs as of June—so brace yourselves for reduced royalties, friends!
As of yesterday, my sales count is at a whopping 22 books. Woo! And at almost a whole $100USD in profit, I’m just $118 away from breaking even on my book-promo budget. In other words: tread carefully and responsibly in this world, friends. Don’t break yourself on any one story launch, if you can help it.