Write What You Know, Know What You Know

Byron surprised me with tickets to an upcoming John Hodgman show this Friday  (aka, the Deranged Millionaire), and in researching the show I stumbled across this video — John Hodgman’s Advice to Writers.

In addition to featuring Hodgman’s lovely dry wit, there are some good little wisdom nuggets in there — namely, the problems with “write what you know.” Hodgman says that if you want to write what you know, you’d better know some interesting things. We writers unfortunately can’t be shut-ins all the time — you have to get out there and live some life. The real heart of his argument, however, comes down to “know what you know”:

And then you also have to know what you know, and I think that’s even the hardest thing. Writing what you know is fine, but knowing what you know is the key to actually writing or creating any piece of art, because you have to know what it is that is driving you to do this completely narcissistic and asocial act of creating — forcing your thoughts and feelings upon a world that does not care. And you have to honestly figure out what it is you care about.

This struck a cord with me, because um, if we’re going with the whole “honesty” thing? I never know what I’m writing about. Not really. I mean, I know the characters, and the setting, and the plot (hopefully!). But I rarely know what the driving force is behind a piece — not until I’m finished and can see the forest for the trees.

It seems to me that Hodgman is talking about theme — that all-powerful yet enigmatic word that is supposed to pull a writer’s work together. Stephen King has a chapter in On Writing about theme. He starts off:

Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered — why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important.

Key there? When you’ve finished. I really don’t know how I could ever pick up the theme of a piece when I’m in the middle of it, wrestling with the characters and the plot and the “oh my god, did I really write that?” After I’ve finished and had some time away from the piece, that’s when I can lean back and say, “Oh. So that’s what it was all about.”

But it is entirely possible (even probable) that this is just me. Others may write with theme at the forefront — they may already know what they know and are ready to write about it. Does this put writers into two different camps? Plot-driven and theme-driven?

My guess is that this is something that applies to all creative types, not just writers (if you’re a painter, for example, you may not truly know what you’re going for until after you’ve slapped some paint on the canvas). So I’ll pose the question to all creative types — do you create with theme in mind? Or is it something you stumble upon after the fact?

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2 thoughts on “Write What You Know, Know What You Know

  1. I tend toward the belief that theme is primarily a subconscious undercurrent that flows naturally into and gives life to a story. If you’re truly passionate about something, all you have to do is tell your tale and your passion will become one with your work. Consciously trying to force theme, in my experience at least, almost always leads to preachy, stilted and uninspired work.

    1. Yes! That’s an excellent way of phrasing it — a subconscious undercurrent. I think it’s the writer’s job to bring that undercurrent a *little* more to the forefront in revisions… but only a tad. Otherwise, you’re right, it starts to get preachy.

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