The Truth About “Write About What You Know”

by Francine Ringold

I’ve always disliked the literal meaning of “write about what you know.”  It seems so glib, so limiting.

We know so much more than we think we know, and, at times, we know so much less than we think we know. We look back and read a number of poems or letters or notes that we wrote years before a crisis: divorce, death, change . . . (ahhhh, change).  And we find that we knew it was coming as we wrote but before we acknowledged it.  The knowing was in the subtext, the slight hints, the adjectives, perhaps. The knowledge was there but we didn’t acknowledge it; we didn’t “know” it upfront.

Yet we wrote about it.  It lurked behind and within the words, it snuck in in innuendo and reference and an accumulation of references.

​Or to put it another way: We knew before we knew we knew. (Is this the same as “write about what you know”?)

Or let’s look at this subject another way: Even when writing a memoir, where we use “factual” details, dates, corroborated witnesses, we have to do research, research about what we just jotted down and need to confirm or reject or expand upon. And that research—those facts, details, history—become what we know. We can’t remember the exact date of an event. We look it up. We ask questions. That date leads us to other discoveries, other memories.  If we don’t pass them up, they become part of our flesh and bones and blood. To paraphrase Rilke—not until they turn to blood within us can we write one line . . . one true word.

Moreover, there are often those tricky certainties: We know, we think we know, what is in the palm of our hand.  Then we look at it, really look at it and that palm, those lines become branches to other places and other times.

One writes a memoir about what is known and in the process of writing one discovers that the known is questionable, is proved false, needs further exploration.  For example, one remembers a seemingly casual incident: I am twelve years old, holding my aunt’s hand, walking in Grand Central Station. She meets a tall, dark man. She is startled. She knew him some time ago, she says. There is an acknowledgment of my presence, a strange exchange of nods and glances. Then they say goodbye.  My aunt walks faster.

Why do I remember these tiny, seemingly insignificant moments?  Why do I question them now when I am no longer a child but 84 years old? Why was my aunt so upset?  Why did the man look at me so inquiringly? And so the brain whirls.

In that spiral the mind and body picks up bits and pieces of other unanswered questions. For example, at my aunt’s funeral, after I had given a eulogy where I ended with: “She was not my mother, she was my aunt, she was my best friend . . . she was my mother.”  Why did my aunt’s best friend whisper to me, “Yes, she was your mother”?

My biological mother, I had been told and always believed, was my aunt’s older sister.  My mother died when she was 38 and I was 8. My grandmother and my aunt had become my family, along with my two cousins, my aunt’s little girls whom I, in turn, cared for.  I never doubted this relationship. Yet I was born in 1934. My aunt, traveling with her mother, my grandmother, and a vaudeville company, came home from Europe in 1934. Why did she come home? She was booked to go directly to Australia from England. Grandmother said it was because she had insisted on seeing her other daughter’s newborn child.

Questions remain. Possible answers become the facts we add to our narrative, become what we know. What we know and can write about because what the few facts and memories and imagination have confirmed chill our bones and “make our hair stand on end,” as Hamlet and others have said.

Without imagination, nothing in the world could be meaningful.  Without imagination, we could never make sense of our experience.  Without imagination, we could never reason toward knowledge, toward reality.*  

As with everything in life and writing, there are no simple answers, no absolutes. We can write about anything if we apply research, knowledge, memory, touch, taste, details, and imagination in our quest for knowledge and expression.

*The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, Mark Johnson, 1987,  The University of Chicago Press, explores the central role of human imagination in all meaning, understanding, and reasoning.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book is From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

 

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