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