“Write what you know” is one of those rules that you are told in high school English classes during your short creative writing session. Sometimes, they’ll tell you it again in undergrad but, for the most part, it’s a kind of cliché that no one repeats after that, since you’re expected to know what you know now. The “know” prescription underpins a good part of the creative writing pedagogy. The “write what you know” adage gets students away from language that doesn’t sound like them—either too formal or too pompous or too flowery with vocabulary that sounds like it came from the thesaurus rather than a human person. It’s a way to get the writer from writing about unicorns. What do you know about unicorns? Do they behave like zebras or horses? Are they beasts or angels? If you can’t know the nature of the animal, maybe you should let them be. It’s a way to get students to drive scenes, put their bodies in a place, use the five senses, draw from experience. You know your senses
But in an essay, writing what you know is not essay writing in the way essaying—or trying it out, or assaying which means, although you probably already know this: trying to determine the content or quality of. If you already know the content or quality, then why “assay?” If you’re trying to preach what you already know, then you’re speaking a sermon, which is an writing of the persuasive kind but its teleology is already understood—to get you into heaven. To make you a better person.
And maybe all essays do strive to make you a better person, but they also strive to make the writer a better person. Even the bible says good things, I think, about humility. While a sermon behaves according to the parameters of speech—the kind of essay writer you learn in composition—egos, logos, pathos. Bob Dylan, the main bible I know, says, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” but the essay is the quiet brother to the composed song whose humming out a melody sounds a deep resonance in the atavistic brain. It finds a word and plays with it on the tongue. The writer who begins not knowing anything begins with humility. Hopefully not false humility which is a kind of “I know I’m great but I’m going to pretend I’m not.” Beginning with a maybe premise, a possible bunny of an idea, that you then try to follow across the yard, bouncing this way and back, saying the word “bunny bunny bunny” not knowing where this idea is going and if the bunny is just trying to get you off its back so it can returns to its warren and rest. Here you have some many directions to go: Elizabeth Warren. The Warren Court. War and Peace. You did not know you were so indebted to puns.
Then, in the middle of the essay, you might know something. Possibly that this bunny metaphor was a bad idea? Do you stop writing? Heck, no. You just keep groovin’ a long, singing your song, like Pete the Cat, the book you now know by heart, and his very groovy rhyming books. Did you just write yourself into a cul de sac? No worries! You have strategy if not forethought, enthusiasm if not genius. Where should we go now?
Back to the beginning. The hint of a premise. You remember suddenly, you’re writing about writing what you do not know. What can be easier than that? The world is your oyster of non-knowledge. Sure, you can tell your Kumomotos from your Hood canals but you don’t know how to catch one. Perhaps knowing stuff is a good method for shaping fiction. To invent the not-yet-happened, you have to draw upon the already-happened. To make a unicorn, you have to rely on a horse. To make a man who lives in a cabin tying his own flies, you have met or at least heard of a man and the idea of tying flies. You’ve seen a cabin before. You can now write what you know and put it all together. You have a man. You have a plan with what to do with him. He walks to the river. You know rivers. He casts his line. You know the trick—over the shoulder like tossing a cup of coffee. Don’t get any coffee down your back. Then, flick the rod forward like you’re flicking paint on a canvas. This is what you know. This doesn’t mean you’re likely to catch a fish—essay writing is like that. Casting. Rarely any fish. But in your fiction, you have to go forward. When your fisherman pulls a body or an antique can or a gigantic carp or a old plastic garbage sack out of the water, circumscribed its possibilities, you have organized your plot and now climax ahead.
But in an essay, while you do sometimes draw a picture of a man and a fly and maybe even have him cast it in the water, you are not sure where to go next. This is not a story. You know narrative. You know plot. Forward motion. But now you, essayist, have abandoned the bunny for a fish. Maybe this is a piece about animals you’ve loved before. Maybe it’s an essay about the arbitrariness of fishing. Maybe it’s an essay about a young woman who writes about an old man she wished she could one day be. Lee Martin writes on his blog, “An essayist is always writing two essays in one—the one that announces itself in the opening and the one that rises up within it.” My colleague Jane Armstrong says, “the essay always has the thing and the other thing.” I contend the essay certainly has two things, but I never know, starting out, which one is which.
Lee Martin in his blog post thought that he was writing about his father’s lack of faith and his mother’s complete belief. Then, after he came to the end, he realized that he was also writing about his deep wish that he could have the kind of faith his mother had and that he shared, when he was a kid. Which is the first essay? Which is the second. He’s remembering scenes from church, listening to sermons. The stuff he knows and remembers instead of leads him on a trajectory he couldn’t expect. He couldn’t plan to go there but he relies on the specificity of his memory to turn associative and surprising. He could rely upon the idea that the essay is always about a faith you wish you had. He’s still standing at the river, fly in the water. Sometimes, the essay never leaves the bank. Sometimes, you give up the rod and check out the reeds humming some song you thought you remembered in your head.
Using memory instead of the senses means that you have to follow a course you undoubtedly don’t know. You follow it until the end and maybe you don’t even know it’s the end. You go back over the essay. You see two or three threads. You follow each of the threads out word by word. Each word rolls like a lost ball of yarn. Come back ball! You weave the bunny in throughout. You remember to return to the fish man. You remember to describe the fish—oily as a broken hollandaise, which reminds you that it was fish you wanted for lunch—not to be an old fishing man. So you go to the beginning of the essay and you start again with something like, “I don’t know how to catch a fish but I do know how to cook one.” Or so you think, until you see all those bones and forgot your filleting knife. Still, you proceed. Slowly. You save most of the flesh. End up with a nearly see-through filet. You pour the butter slowly into the egg mixture. You stir fast enough. It doesn’t break.
Nicole Walker is the curator of the "Breaking the Rules" cul de sac of the Essay Daily neighborhood. She curates her own blog where, lately, she writes letters to the governor. He does not respond.