Write What You See, Not What You Know

You don’t play what you know, you play what you hear. – Miles Davis

Most of us first learn to write simple sentences such as “See Spot run” in grade school and hone our writing skills through high school and college on academic essays that require sophisticated analysis, abstraction, and summary. In essay writing, the student is taught to begin a paragraph with a summary premise that expands to an analysis of the subject being considered and concludes with a statement that summarizes the argument made in the preceding sentences. In fiction, this summary-exposition-conclusion style is useless. Those who wish to write fiction will discover a more useful model in a first-grade primer than the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook for Writers.

When I first began to teach fiction writing, I wondered why some of my smartest, most academically gifted students wrote stiff and graceless stories, whereas some who had middling academic records wrote stories and characters that leapt from the page. The answer, I later discovered, lay in their very excellence as students. They’ve been trained throughout their academic careers to write what they know. Summary, abstraction, generalization, and repetition are not only allowed in essay style, they’re often key to the structuring of the essay’s argument. So when writing fiction some students summarize a character or action in the first paragraph, then demonstrate the truth of the summary by giving examples, and then wrap up with another summary at the end. They’ve learned to write in an essay style that doesn’t translate easily to fiction. They write out of their heads, rather than from their eyes.

When writing fiction, don’t write what you know. Write what you see. Don't write, "John was sad." That's just a summary idea. Instead, watch John in your imagination and write what you observe. Robert Olen Butler, in his treatise on the art of fiction, From Where You Dream, says, “Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.” Butler argues that novels are too complex to think into existence, except in the simplest forms.

The mind of the artist is at its most creative when it’s not consciously thinking. Our conscious minds are capable of dealing with known facts and processes but only the unconscious can combine facts and processes in the creative ways necessary to a novel. Writing that derives too much from the conscious mind generally lacks suppleness, genuine insight, and surprising twists of action, thought, or character. When a writer is writing from her unconscious, from what Butler calls the white-hot center, she taps into the primal source of creativity.

The obvious question for the developing writer (and for all writers) is, “How do I get to this white-hot center, this primal source of creativity?” The answer is both simple and complex. You’ve probably already been there. How many times have you sunk so deeply into writing a story that you completely forgot about time, thirst, and hunger – even forgot, for a time, that you were you? That’s your true writing center, the region of self that connects most directly to the images, insights, and emotions that form the raw material of narrative art.

Jazz musicians aren’t consciously thinking when they improvise on a standard tune; instead, they’ve launched themselves into their subconscious mind, playing what they hear. When Miles Davis says you play what you hear, not what you know, he’s telling you to stop thinking and to listen.