Writing What We Don’t Know

“Write what you know.” We hear this so often, it’s not even cliché anymore. It’s a cliché of a cliché: the archetypal advice given to new writers.

Write what you know. You can see what they’re driving at. Write those things you’ve lived and held in your bones; write the things that matter to you. Write your experience, because your experience is unique and no one knows it better than you.

Except—I don’t think we write what we know. Not really. We write what we don’t understand.

I look at my fiction, and I see the same motifs emerging over and over again. Frigid, brittle winters. Loss and grief. Sibling and pseudo-sibling angst. These are the stories I tell myself, again and again. Turning them over, swapping things around, changing the key. Almost as though, if I keep trying, I’ll hit the magic combination that lets “The End” sing with comprehension.

(Source, The Torontoist. Image by Howard Yang.)

(Source: The Torontoist. Image by Howard Yang.)

It’s not intentional. I don’t think writers consciously set out to write stories based on their psychological hang-ups. I certainly don’t sit down and think, “Right, short story time. Let’s see, I need my northern village in the grip of winter, my tiny ray of hope at the very end…” No, the stories that come to us come from inside us. We write what we don’t understand because those unresolved questions are what the mind returns to—quietly, subconsciously—expressing its findings as wendigo and little gods and ice, because those are the best images it can find. And so, as artists, our metal workshops are filled.

I do worry about becoming a cliché of myself. “Oh, northern village, hidden god, sad orphan—must be a KT Bryski story.” I do try to push myself. “Does this story have to be set in winter? Is there a way to accomplish this without resorting to divinity?” And sometimes, the answer is yes. And sometimes, the answer is no.

Because—I don’t think I understand winter. Not really, not on a metaphorical level. Not the long nights, and the cracking ice, and that peculiar grey time between late afternoon and twilight. I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand being torn from home—or exiles.

As it turns out, I don't think I fully understood my homesickness while travelling...

As it turns out, I don’t think I fully understood my homesickness while travelling…

After this week, I realize I really don’t understand the pains of this world.

But we keep writing. Or painting. Or singing. Or even just talking. That’s the only way to come close, I think—to get scraps of insight, a piecemeal comprehension. The only way out is through. And that is the wonderful, powerful thing about literature. It’s how we try to understand. I can think of nothing more meaningful than that.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

Continuing our theme of “loud and complex,” I’ve been enjoying “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s Planets suite. It starts low but ominous—striking strings beat a menacing pulse in the background while the brass carries the melody. We get louder and fuller through the first two minutes, sound crashing like waves…

And then we break at 2:11, with an extended dialogue between the horns and the rest of orchestra. A murky, serpentine section in the middle gradually disintegrates into our original, Darth Vader-like theme.

And you know what? Holding onto that pulse all the way through—it never lets you rest. It’s like alarms going off the entire time. Until the crashing, thunderous chords in the last minute. This piece pretty much just obliterates everything in its path.

 

Posted on November 18, 2015, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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