Most of us have learned to disagree strenuously with the phrase “write what you know.”

Maybe the new advice is “know something before you write.”

After all, aren’t the best books the ones which have details of other worlds than we know? Worlds where we are percussionists, unwillingly follow the renaissance fair every summer with our parents, live on the outskirts of a reservation in Minnesota, or run away from home to find our fathers in Ireland — those are worlds we don’t inhabit, and stories which catch at our imaginations. Why should we want to linger in worlds as common and as familiar as our last names?
Breathe in the world.
Breathe IN the world.
BREATHE in the world.

“I have been known to tell my writing students: If you are going to stand on the shoulders of giants (as we all do), read what they have read, not just what they have written. Take a course in bird identification, on the proper way to set in a sleeve, how to roast an ox, how to weed a garden. Read a book on shoing horses or stand by someone doing it. Smell the air. Name the clouds. Learn how to read the stars. Taste a clementine with your eyes closed. Go through your house eyes shut and touch as many surfaces as you can. See what grows in the cracks of a city street. Dive into the ocean. Ski down a mountain. Sit on a rock and watch without moving all that moves about you. Breathe in the world.”

Jane Yolen, Journal 12.24.08

7 Replies to “Advice”

  1. Tadmack,

    Great post! What Jane Yolen writes, I think, speaks especially to poets. It calls to mind John Moffitt’s poem “To Look at Anything.”

    Have you ever read Yolen’s piece “Turtles All the Way Down?” Originally published in 1991 in WRITING SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, it was reprinted in ONLY CONNECT: READINGS ON CHILDREN’S LITERATURE (3rd edition). She gives wonderful advice to would-be writers of fantasy/science fiction.

  2. I’ve gotten a lot better about slowing down and watching the world more, really trying to be an observer writer. What I still need to work on is keeping a journal to jot down my daily “notice-ings” for future use in my stories etc. I’ll add that to the ever growing, and ever failing, New Year resolution list 🙂

  3. I wonder if “write what you know” makes more sense in other languages. There is knowing in terms of facts, and knowing in terms of understanding. “Write what you understand to be true” is the way I want to do it.

  4. Thanks to Seren and Writegrrl, I’ve been reading Writing Down the Bones and I’m finding it has a lot of helpful advice in terms of how to view your writing in relation to the world, to life, to living. It’s a nice bit of synchronicity that you should post this today!

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