Writing What You Don't Know

Adapted from a talk given at Girls Write Now, June 2012


A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to work on a series of books, the first of which was The Daring Book for Girls. This was a fantastic experience. Not just because it was terrific fun to write, but also because it was so great to be able to collect so much amazing lore that girls just somehow know—the kind of stuff they share with each other on playgrounds or sleepovers, or with their sisters or mothers or grandmothers, but which rarely actually gets written down. The kind of invisible stuff that can disappear if we don’t put it into written words.

But probably the thing that made it best was that I started getting a lot of emails from nine-year-old girls.

This meant I got put on a lot of FWDs lists. I got a lot of chain letter emails. I got a ton of “scroll down and you’ll get your wish” emails. But I also got emails from aspiring nine-year-old writers. And one of those nine year olds just kept writing to me over the years. She asked thoughtful questions; she used punctuation, which, you know, not everybody does, not even grown-ups, especially in emails; and she seemed to really enjoy talking about the process of writing, how you do it, what makes it happen, what you do when you begin to doubt yourself. And so even though she was very young when we first started corresponding, I could tell: She was a writer.

Over the years we’ve continued our correspondence. Once in a while we talk via Skype, where she sometimes plays through the piano pieces she’s currently working on—she’s a pianist, too, like me. And so we get to talk about music process and practicing process as well as writing process.

A few summers ago, just after she turned 12, she sent me a novel manuscript, a chilling tale that was part fantasy in the traditional sense, and part good old-fashioned campfire ghost story. It was really good. Scary good. But she wasn’t satisfied with it, and so she moved on to something else. And then something else after that, and then something else after that. She was a bit discouraged by all that, by starting so many things and having the ideas get away from her, but I told her, this is what writers do. They write, they try things out, they move on to the next thing, they circle back. All part of the process.

Sometime later, she landed on what she felt was going to be the idea that stuck, and she wrote to me about it. It was an ambitious, futuristic, dystopian tale, packed with high-level political intrigue and characters who must overcome their cultural limitations to save the world. We had a long Skype talk about how to approach it, how to organize it, what to do when the excitement of your idea runs out and all you’re left with is the non-fun parts of getting it all on the page. Why it’s good to have an outline or a skeleton of your massive concept, so that when you get bogged down or forget where you were going or why you were so excited to get there in the first place, you can return to your basic sketch and remind yourself: Oh, right.

This was a fantastic conversation, a really productive talk, and I got an excited email from her later saying that she was going to start working on it, and that she couldn’t wait.

Then, a few weeks later, she sent another email with a question. And it was this question that I wanted to talk with you about today. She wrote that she wanted to have her main characters fall in love. But there was a problem.

“I’m only thirteen,” she wrote, “and I don’t know what falling in love feels like, other than in books.”

Could I help her, she wondered? Could I tell her details about how I felt when it happened to me, could I give her concrete facts about what it was like to experience it? Could I describe it to her, explain to her exactly what it was like to fall in love in real life? Because otherwise, how else could she write about it? Nevermind that she also hasn’t been to a tropical island taken over by warring factions in a desperate, dystopian future. THAT she could imagine. But falling in love?

It was actually a very thoughtful question she had, because of course everyone who’s ever tried to write anything has probably been given the advice to “write what you know.” And it is very important to write from a place of truth, and to write from a place of hard-won knowledge, and to write from a place that you know intimately. Some of the best writing we do comes from places we have lived, so to speak—writing about the things we’ve harbored, huddled over, mulled. The things we have come to know truly, whether we’d wanted to or not. It’s important to write what you know.

But it is just as important, I believe, to write what you don’t know. I don’t mean pretending to know stuff you don’t, or inventing details about things you could easily look up and get right. I mean that sometimes our desire to get a story perfect—our wish for it to be perfect, to be amazing, to be faithful and true to life—sometimes that can paralyze us. Instead of figuring things out as we go, we get stuck in that place where it’s more comfortable to worry about what we don’t know than forge ahead despite our imperfections.

Yes, by all means, do your research, familiarize yourself with the specifics, especially if you are writing about things that demand specificity. But sometimes you just have to write through the questions. You have to imagine what you don’t know yet and write it into being. You have to project yourself into an experience you haven’t had yet. You have to explain to someone a dream you’ve had that you don’t even understand yourself. Writing what you don’t know means starting where you are, and using that as the launching pad for what might come next. In the case of my young aspiring writer friend, I told her that even if she hadn’t yet fallen in love, I was sure she’d fallen in “friend”—that she’d become good friends with someone, maybe even in a “friends at first sight” scenario. Perhaps she’d even become friends with someone who started out as a non-friend, if not an outright enemy. Those experiences, I told her, are a perfectly valid place to start in terms of writing about falling in love. You start from what you know—you start right where you are—and use that as the basis for where you go next.

In a lot of ways, writing what you don’t know is just like writing what you do know: you just need that starting place. For my 13-year-old aspiring writer, it was the giddiness and excitement of BFF-ship, being someone’s newest and bestest best friend. And for me, well… For instance, my most recent book, the young adult novel Gift, featured a demon ghost and characters with supernatural powers. Of course I don’t have any personal experience having super electrical powers or being haunted by a ghost. But I have a starting place: I do know what it’s like to feel like you’re the only one who might be feeling what you’re feeling. I do know what it’s like to wonder what is real. I do know what it’s like to go to the darkest place of who you are, when it feels like everything is lost, and discover that you never feel more like yourself, your real authentic self, than you do in those dark moments. So I extrapolate. I imagine. I do what storytellers have done since the dawn of time: I make it up. I pull out the truth of my own limited experience, and try I make it true for everyone. At least for a little while.

I’ve been speaking here about fiction, but the same general principles apply to nonfiction as well. Even when you actually know the facts you’re writing about—and sometimes especially when you know it, because you’ve lived through it or witnessed it firsthand, and you’re very close to it—still the very process of telling the story reveals things about it that you don’t know. Sometimes the telling uncovers truths you hadn’t realized beforehand. Sometimes in telling the story you lead yourself to a way into the experience that you couldn’t have found without the act of trying to frame it with words. Sometimes the act of storifying it can take you to a place you don’t know yet.

That’s the beauty of the transformative process of writing, the work you do to translate a burst of what seem to be fully formed ideas existing all at once in your head into something linear, something with a logical trajectory, something with consistency that moves through time and slowly reveals itself to the reader. So all writing, really, is about what we don’t know, even when we think we do. And that’s the terrifying part and the best part, all at once. Plunging into the mystery and not knowing for sure if you’ll be able to surface again, if you’ll be able to serve the story in the way it needs to be served, tell it in the best possible way, the only possible way, it can be told by you, right now, at this time in your life, at this moment. That’s the risk every time—and the wonder. That the story in your head unravels itself on the page, and that what you know about it takes on new meaning as you write it out, line by line.

So I want to tell you what I told her: that it’s okay to be 13 and never have fallen in love and to write about it anyway. The writing prepares us for what’s to come. We write our way in to stories, and we write our way out. And when you discover in real life the place you’ve only written about, you’ll find yourself on strangely familiar ground. Because it’s something you’ve read about, something you’ve imagined, something you’ve written your way through—and something you’ve made into your own story along the way.