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Don't Write What You Know

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I have been writing off and on for many years. Now that I'm retired from the work force, I'm dedicating more time to the craft.

Don’t Write What You Know

Some of this poem is about things of which I know very little. Some of it is kind of about a chunk of deer antler I found on a gravel road one day while I was out riding my bike. I grunted up this steep gravel road late one afternoon in mid-October, and when I reached the top, I looked back over my shoulder and saw the gorgeous sky off to the west. I stopped, laid down my bike and took this picture:

dont-write-what-you-know

When that was done, and just as I was starting down the other side of the hill, I noticed the tine of a deer antler laying on the road, stopped again, picked it up, shoved it in my jersey pocket. At the time I just thought it would be a neat souvenir, didn’t know anything at all about the fate of shed deer antlers.

dont-write-what-you-know

That experience, and the homework I did after, are part of this work. But at the end of the day, the whole of this piece was mostly inspired by an article I read recently: “Don’t Write What You Know,” by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Professor Johnston used to head the creative writing department at Harvard, and now he serves at UT Austin as the Director of the Michener Center for Writers. His list of author “don’ts” includes the title of this poem as item number last.

I’m working on taking this piece of Bret’s advice for three reasons:

1) His name prefaces a long list of impressive works, novels, accomplishments and other credentials; because of that he’s worth listening to, in my opinion.

2) He used a cool football metaphor in his article. He’s also worth listening to for that reason, methinks.

3) He said something in the article (which was featured in The Atlantic, by the way) that really hit center of being with me: Writing what you know vs. writing what you don’t know is “the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.” I have for most of my life allowed only a select group to read my works, mostly family and very close friends. Almost universally, with one notable exception (Thanks, son!), I’ve received “Oh, that’s really good” feedback from this audience. Almost across the board, too, there is some attachment to or knowledge of the subject for this group of readers. What the work conjures, then, is often a kind of rehash of things that have come and gone, a veracity check that’s not hard to pass. I want a way out of that mold.

I’m still learning about this concept, and have noticed that it is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) mentioned quite often in a book I’m doing now: Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Julie Checkoway and featuring essays from prominent writers across the US. I say “I’m doing” that book because it has numerous exercises in it at the end of each chapter essay. I’m still working on Exercise One, Chapter One, but I’m making some progress. Interestingly, much of what is needed for me to move forward is to spend time reading works by great writers of the past and present. To that end, I intend to do some reading today.

Meantime, I hope you enjoy this short poem.

Don't Write What You Know

Don’t write what you know

Just let your pen go

On a trip out to sea

Or on an epic journey

To an unknown

Or forgotten

Remote spot in the universe

In the arm

Of the spiral galaxy

Let your pen

Pretend

To spend

A day at an office you’ve never seen

Working with people you’ve never met

Doing a job you know nothing about

But speak confidently

Like you do

With a voice

It’s a choice

We don’t often make

Advice we seldom take

I know nothing about being a farrier

But I can picture a sledge

Violently yet elegantly

And meticulously and accurately

Pounding orange, red-hot steel

Into a newly formed shoe

That sizzles when tongs lower it

Into a cool bucket of water

And I can hear the farrier

Whisper to the horse

As (s)he pets its mane,

Gently lifts its leg

Trims and grooms the hoof

Where the new shoe will

Replace the old

And I’m watching

As each nail is pounded in

Swiftly, around the ‘U’

Carefully, precisely

And the horse doesn’t move

Doesn’t neigh

Doesn’t whinny

And when the work is done

I can see the majestic animal move away

Leave the barn

Circle the corral

Slowly at first

Walk

Then more quickly

Trot

Then all out

Gallop

Round and round

Putting its new Keds

Through the paces

Giving the farrier a thank you

Without words

And the farrier turns

And walks back to the barn

Thinking about bleached sand

On the beach

In Vanuatu

And diving

In blue-green water

So clear

You could open your eyes

Feel the sting

That doesn’t last

And then see

The undersea

For an infinity

Or two

Or for as long as you can hold your breath

And watch life down there

Exist and coexist

And imagine

The way it used to be

Before we

Were here

And then

Grabs another steel bar

Cuts it

And forges it

Into something new

And curved

And rounded

And perfect

To shod an Appaloosa

That might run

Like they used to

When they were wild

And free

Before we

Were here

I found a tine today

On the gravel road it lay

Broken and incomplete

And just like that

My mind was replete

With notions

Of the possible struggles

That ensued

Oh wait

Was this end chewed?

So perhaps it only fell

To the ground

And then was found

By another hungry

Antler-eating mammal

There are quite a few

Who will gnaw

On antlers that are shed

So instead

Of a violent struggle

Maybe the natural course of things

Occurred

I picture a buck

With one antler missing

And one still attached

And then see the trees

Where they are scratched

And rubbed

Bark completely scrubbed

Gone

From the rut

Or the ridding of velvet

And the tree might live

But it also might die

And I look to the sky

And quietly ask why

But there’s no answer

Or not one I can hear

With an ear

So I listen with my heart

That’s a good start

And you’re welcome to join me

To see

If you can hear

The answer I cannot

I’m glad the tine didn’t rot

Or get eaten

And that I found it

If I knew a farrier

I could visit him

And have her hang it

On the wall

Of the barn

Near the window

Where the steam escapes

Evaporates

After it rises

From the hissing bucket

As the glowing, red, newly-formed shoe is lowered in

And the farrier

Pulls it out

And examines the workmanship

With the faintest bit

Of a smile

Sources

"Don't Write What You Know" by Bret Anthony Johnston

Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Julie Checkoway


Don't Write What You Know

© 2020 greg cain

Comments

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 19, 2020:

I enjoyed the poem and your commentary, Greg. I also agree with the statement “Don’t write what you know,” as a fiction writer anyway. I think my Owl and the Pussycat series is an example of that. I have never been to most of the places they visit but it’s fun to imagine what it would be like.

It is amazing how something as simple as a discarded piece of anger can spark the imagination and make you wonder how it came to be.

A great write, and you never disappoint.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Hi Peggy - I think that's right, to a very large extent. I think there's another part to this concept, too, and that's working with something you know to develop something new and innovative. That technique is one I suspect I'll be working on for many years to come.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Hi DreamerMeg - Unusual is just fine with me! I am pretty sure I'm a pretty unusual guy, anyway. That piece of antler is among the small pile of trinkets and treasures I've found on the roadsides while out riding my bike. Maybe I can get inspiration for another work or two from that! Stay safe over there across the pond. Be well.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Hi Liz - yes, some of this line of thinking was revelatory to me, as well. Seems like the more I read these days, the more that happens. Hope all is well in your neck of the woods. Be well and be safe.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 19, 2020:

That concept of writing about what one doesn't know would involve research and keep our minds working. I enjoyed your poem and how it flowed from subject to subject. Thanks!

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on November 19, 2020:

I really enjoyed that poem. It was unusual, yet felt beautifully crafted and all from a piece of an antler!

Liz Westwood from UK on November 19, 2020:

I really enjoyed this poem as I followed your imaginative train of thought. It has certainly got me thinking about creative writing and how it is formed.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Jerman - That is so true! Taking the plunge into that great unknown is everything. And, yes, I believe I can relate to the teaching of courses one knows versus not...

I love that last thought, too: if I'd only done what I know, I'd never have done anything. That is a perfect sentiment.

Be safe, be well, my friend.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Thanks, Ann. I'm glad you were able to navigate your way to the comments section this morning and pass along the great sentiments. Happy, healthy, good day to you.

Jerman Rose on November 19, 2020:

Beautiful, Greg. It's not only writing what you don't know, but doing what you don't know too. I always say if I only did the things I know, taught the courses I know (sshh! that's a secret), went to the places I had been to, I would never have done anything.

Ann Carr from SW England on November 19, 2020:

What a great read, Greg! Love the concept of writing about what one doesn't know and thoroughly enjoyed your poem, especially about the blacksmith and the running horse.

A delightful evening's read!

Ann

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Bill - one of the things I’ve discovered while reading through some of the essays in "Creating Fiction" is that what it means to avoid “writing what you know” varies depending on who is explaining it. And another thing I learned is that even though there are rules aplenty, there are also an uncountable number of reasons and ways to disobey (or to avoid obeying, perhaps) any one or all of those rules. Such is the nature of the craft, I guess.

I'd say you know plenty, Bill. Happy Thursday. Be safe, be well.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 19, 2020:

That was a fun read, buddy! I enjoyed the farrier's work, the concept of going to unknown places, doing unknown things, I suspect that's what all of us fiction writers do, to a certain degree, whenever we "invent" a story. I will sprinkle knowns into my stories, but the stories themselves are always inventions of the unknown, yes?

But what the heck do I really know, you know?

Have a great Thursday!

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Thanks, Eric. I think one of the main points to the first part, the "Don't Write What You Know" discussion is that using what you know as a scaffold and not being beholden to it...well, that's a whole different thing than recapping a story of true events, or mostly true events. It's not that what we know isn't necessary, it's that it is not sufficient to explore all the fantastic possibilities beyond what we really know.

Thanks, as always, for the kind words Eric. Be well, be safe.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on November 19, 2020:

Hi Sally - haha! Of course this concept clearly applies to the writing of fiction works. I think your impressive array of "how to" articles is all the more impressive because of the expertise behind it.

Thanks for giving it a look! And Happy Thursday.

Be safe and be well.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 19, 2020:

Really nice notion in the beginning. Well worth incorporating. Thank you.

Your poetry is such a pleasant dreamy type of work. Very peaceful.

Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on November 19, 2020:

Interesting concept, now I know where I have gone wrong:) Enjoyed reading your article.