The Only Writing Advice that Truly Matters: Write What You Love

In this early and hopefully theme-setting blog post I would like to champion this most useful idea, raising it several levels above the more commonly heard advice to “write what you know.”

I feel I’ve spent, and sometimes wasted, much of my limited time in this life in the “writing what you know” and/or “writing what seems easy, lucrative, or respectable” camp. Why? I’m not sure. I guess it’s like settling for the wrong, but acceptable, mate: it’s a road more travelled and supposedly more secure. But that road doesn’t lead anywhere interesting or important, and ultimately you (and I) arrive at the wrong place.

So I guess that brings me to what exactly I mean by the potentially trite word “love.” I don’t mean a surface kind of approval, like loving ice cream or silk blouses. When you truly love a piece of writing you’re working on, or have written, it is more like loving a person, and thus it has to go beyond the infatuation phase to come out right. Just as when you really love a person, the relationship isn’t always going to be easy or enjoyable—effort, struggle, disappointment, and sacrifice will invariably be involved. But you hang in there and do the work and spend the time because it’s worth it, because it feels meaningful, important, and deeply gratifying to you.

And often it is the “not knowing” or mysterious element in the work (or the person!) that makes it so worth pursuing. For me this comes in wonderfully strange dream or daydream images, a certain ineffable mood or drifting melody or rhythm that overtakes me, or an idea, usually in the form of a question, that will parade around me, gesticulating like a boisterous child until I pay attention to it.

Not that “writing what you know” and “writing what you love” are mutually exclusive approaches: particularly in non-fiction writing, people tend to research and know a lot about topics that are intensely interesting or dear to them. But even so it’s my contention that if  you have too much “knowing” when you start a writing project, any writing project, what comes out of it is going to be stale. I think the sort of love we need as writers necessitates a quality of genuine unknowing, or what researcher and writer Rosemary Anderson calls “auspicious bewilderment.” This writerly love embodies curiosity, fascination, and respect for the place from which the rich, unexpected material arises, which is not the confined quarters of the everyday conscious mind but the other, expansive realm of mind parallel to it, the one depth psychologists in their more staid language call “the unconscious” and in their more fanciful turns of phrase call “the imaginal.” Fiction and poetry writers probably draw more from that region, but all writers must rely on it to a great extent.

So let this be the season of Writing What We Love, as an end in itself, and Loving What We Write as a brave act of devotion (not narcissism). Carry on!

2 thoughts on “The Only Writing Advice that Truly Matters: Write What You Love

  1. I agree! When I was a teenager, writing stories myself, I sought advice on a writers’ forum, and there I was asked why I would write about the adventures of a 15 year old boy in 15ht century Italy, when I could SO much more easily write the viewpoint of a girl in today’s times? Fact is, I was much more interested in historical settings and the male perspective and I still am!
    I, too, want to write what I LOVE – even when that is not nessarily what I know best. 🙂

    Do you know Karl May? 19th century German author famous for wild west novels. He’s never been to America his entire life!

    • Hi Kristina,

      It occurs to me that no one asks readers (or watchers of films, plays, etc.) why they don’t stick to stories about protagonists who match them in age, gender, culture, and so forth, so why assume writers of all people should want to do so? Also, who is this generic “girl in today’s times”? She sounds to me like a stereotype, and don’t we have enough of those floating around? On the other hand, I think a writer can use her own particular, peculiar, idiosyncratic perspectives and experiences to enrich a story about a character or time quite “other” than herself, with interesting results. Finally, there are different ways of “knowing”: first-hand experience is one, but there is also research combined with imaginative knowing, which I’m assuming Karl May used in his writing (thanks for mentioning him–I had not heard of him), as well as the vast majority of creative writers. It sounds like you didn’t listen to that forum advice, which I’m glad of, and I hope you continue to write what you love. Thanks for commenting.

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