What you don’t know


Still from Disney’s 1979 film The Black Hole, which I’d never heard of until I went a-hunting for an image for this post

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know I have my strong beliefs. Not many of them, to be sure, but some I return to like a dog to its vomit. One of them is this: you must write what you know.

This is one of those pieces of writing wisdom that has entered popular parlance (can you remember where you first heard it? I can’t; a quick search suggests that Mark Twain might be its originator but this I take with a generous pinch of salt), and I have written about it before. But can we try a little thought experiment? Can we try and examine what happens when you write what you don’t know?

Let’s imagine a house. Think of somewhere you’ve lived. Now it’s not unreasonable to think that if you’re reading this you’re neither madly wealthy nor living in abject poverty so your experiences are probably fairly average.

Now: what if the walls were thinner? What if they were made of plastic panels instead of brick? What if the superstructure had been replaced so many times that none of the original remained? The windows are made from cut-down bottles that shine a kaleidoscope on the battered furniture (nothing matching; salvaged; repaired; cast-offs traded for favours or rescued from the rubbish of the wealthy).

There is no sound-proofing. You can hear everything that happens outside; not only the jet-planes that are constantly circling but the arguments in the shack next door and the fights outside – the ones that make the walls shiver and shake and make you keep a knife by your nest of old newspapers and blankets.

And yet it is still your space. You still sigh in relief when you get inside and shut the ill-fitting door behind you. It is still the place – perhaps the only one – where you can truly let your guard down and be yourself.

With me? Good. Now let’s try and take it in another direction:

You’re in your spaceship. It’s your single most important possession, your lifeblood: the thing you rely on to keep the (space) wolves from the door. It’s second-hand because a two-bit trader like you can’t afford to buy new. Every piece of kit, every wire, every relay has been replaced at least twice. Half the instruments don’t work, their components cannibalised to run more important systems. You had to take out an exorbitant loan to replace the oxygen-scrubber last time it went down on you.

Each trip earns you just enough to buy fuel for the next – maybe, if you’re lucky, with enough on top to keep up with the interest repayments. You still dream of earning enough to retire on a nice little place on Mars but each day you’re getting older and the dream’s not getting any nearer. Guess you should have listened to your Mama and taken that office job on Phobos, huh?

I suppose, in the interests of accuracy, I should make it clear that I have never lived in a shanty nor owned a spaceship working the Mars-Jupiter trading run. I know, I know – what a fraud I am. But I have lived in a house and been in a car. I can imagine what life would be like if you strip away the things you take for granted

I can also go the other way and imagine I was protected by perfection; that everything around me is new, pristine and inviolate (although if you do that it’s almost as good as saying ‘watch all this go wrong’ because them’s the rules).

Take what you know and strip it back. Or build on it. Write what you don’t know.

And, if you’re still in doubt, see what all these famous authors have to say on the subject.