On What We Know and Don't Know

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Chapter 6

On What We Know and Don't Know

Writing teachers often say, "Write what you know." And of course there's some truth to this advice that we're going to experiment with in this chapter.

But most writing teachers say—yes, even I have said it—that you can't teach the invention. That's because those of us who do it go to an imaginative place that we don't fully understand: The place where the mystery of invention happens. And to tell the truth again,

we don't actually know how we did what we did in a piece of writing that soars, that inexplicably can't be easily analyzed and yet moves the reader

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we don't actually know how we did what we did in a piece of writing that soars, that inexplicably can't be easily analyzed and yet moves the reader.

But because I teach and write and because I get lost myself sometimes trying to find my way—and then discover that the discovery lies in that "not knowing," I've done a lot of thinking, reading and teaching on how to find the mystery that we all had as children—when imagination didn't scare us.

But how to get there?

First, let's understand that imagination does scare us. That's why creating feels so risky—and so it should. That's why it seems so daunting in those you think have it. Let's start with some thoughts from poet and thinker Barbara Guest from her book Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (p. 105):

"The forces of the imagination from which strength is drawn have a disruptive and capricious power. If the imagination is indulged too freely, it may run wild and destroy or be destructive to the artist. 'The frenzied addiction,' wrote Baudelaire, is a canker that devours.

"If not used imagination may shrivel up. Even in old age Goethe wrote that he feared the wild tricks of a lively imagination. 'What is the good,' he said, 'of shaping the intellect, securing the supremacy of reason? Imagination lies in wait.'

"Plato also suspected imagination. He thought man could be transformed by the imagination and suggested laws that would prohibit the miming of extravagant evil characters. He advised changing from the dramatic to narrative language if writing became overwrought. It is fear of what begins as fiction ending as reality."*

Second, here are some reasons you might be thinking you can't go to that inventive space. See if anything sounds familiar—and then let's wrestle this bull to the ground:

 See if anything sounds familiar—and then let's wrestle this bull to the ground:

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