Most people are familiar with Hemingway’s writing advice encouraging storytellers to, “Write what you know.” But what most of us “know” comes from first not knowing — from daring to journey toward understanding. Writing fiction well requires we provoke our reader’s curiosity and wonder; but how can we as writers feel either curious or wonder-filled when we are writing from what is to us commonplace? What better way to spark a reader’s delight than if the writer herself explores that which she most fervently wishes to understand? What irresistible invitation is calling you to draw closer? My guess is that it isn’t what you already know.
In truth, what we believe we know is limited to our individual scope. Certainly, there is no one who can write what you write and sees the world as you do, yet your own sibling, parent, child, barista or insurance adjuster see events from a wildly different vantage point. Does their truth, their reality, hold information from which you or your reader might benefit? If we wish for our writing to enlighten, engage and entertain our readers, we must consider writing to better understand. We can do this by taking what we claim to “know” and attempting to see it through the eyes of someone different from ourselves.
No, we will never be 100 percent “correct.” Fiction and reality are inherently separate, leaving us infinite space and freedom to play, to discover, to be delighted.
Here are five tips for writing to better understand:
1) Write About What You Want To Feel
When we write about things we know, we tend to get bored because we’ve already arrived at what our story “means;” we’ve cut out the opportunity to be surprised, to be curious. When we write to better understand, we open the opportunity to provoke and stir our feelings. When we see something from a new point of view, or learn something we didn’t know before, we react.
Take a scene from your work-in-progress and choose an emotion you would most like your character to feel in that situation. Rewrite it so the plot, dialogue, and setting recede, and instead every word evokes the desired emotion. Allow the character to fully immerse in whatever feelings or reactions arise.
2) Stop Craving Comfort
Fear is a sign that you’ve met with a structure that is trying to keep you small, that your limitations have begun to constrict you. You can choose to break through your limits by not craving comfort all the time.
A teen writer I mentored was in the habit of writing safe stories with cozy themes. I challenged her to write a story in the genre “opposite” to her usual go-to, and she chose to write a horror story about her biggest fear (a car accident involving her family.) Every word held deep emotion, reaction, consequence, and sadness. She only wrote the tough parts, so the story was taut, unfiltered, edgy. Sounds horrible, right? She’s never looked back. Writing it didn’t kill her, it made her powerful beyond words. She isn’t afraid to write anything now. It also made her realize that she’d kept herself small. She’d been writing so as not to offend. She’d been hiding her darker self. But once she’d shone light on her darkness, it couldn’t stay dark any longer.
3) Have Compassion
It’s natural to feel unsure about writing about another culture, gender, sexuality, class or group that isn’t familiar. But one of the leading precursors to bias is unfamiliarity. If we hope to create a world that celebrates diversity, tolerance, and equity, it’s fair to reason that seeking to understand can help us and our readers.
Best-selling author and writing instructor Bret Anthony Johnston said, “I argue that if the subject or character is intimidating, then that’s exactly what the writer should be exploring in fiction. My students worry about being invasive or predatory, and few things frighten them more than charges of appropriation and literary trespassing. But I see an altogether more menacing threat: the devaluing of not only imagination, but also compassion. And if empathy is important to fiction, compassion is invaluable.”
An eighth-grade, mixed-race, female graphic novelist in my writing workshop advises writers writing outside their experience to write, “About a minority, not what it’s like to be that minority. Keep it secondary, and think about the impression you want to leave.”
4) Dare to (Imagine What It’s Like To) Walk in Another’s Shoes
When I wrote about my 15-year-old protagonist Carter Danforth’s journey across the American Southwest in my novel, A SONG FOR THE ROAD, I had to put aside my personal life experience almost entirely. I’ve never been a teenaged boy, and I don’t know how to play guitar as he does, but I wanted to see how music moves him, how he navigates a world completely unlike the one I inhabit. I needed to reach out to teens, musicians, and locals and listen to what they told me — and balance it with Carter’s own values, goals, and body of knowledge.
Dare to see an issue from another’s point of view. Release your convictions, step away from your past experience, and find out the “why” driving the behavior and desires of others. Even most twisted, evil villain did not come to believe in his/her/their cause without myriad reasons. Seek understanding.
5) Be brave
No one sets out to misstep or invite ridicule, but if what you contend to write is “safe,” you’re not protecting the reader so much as protecting your ego. If you are sincerely seeking understanding, and you write what you observe about human qualities, most humans will relate.
Be whole, and allow your characters to be whole as well. If your worldview remains behind the blinders of what you already know, you may harbor a particular loneliness. When you reveal your willingness to understand, you release that loneliness, and the loneliness of your reader — who may learn something from your exploration.
Author and creative writing instructor Rayne Lacko believes music, language, and art connect us, and she explores those themes in her novel, A SONG FOR THE ROAD (SparkPress, 2019), and Teen Artist/Writer guided journal for social-emotional well-being. (Free Spirit Publishing, 2020)