The most common advice I’ve received over the years from professors and famous authors alike boils down to “Write what you know.” It seems simple when I repeat it to myself- write what you know. But what about those times when you can no longer trust what you know, when what you know becomes what you think? Sometimes all you can write is that you don’t know. And what about those times when you finally find the self-awareness to know? There’s a risk in articulating your deepest personal truths and offering them to the world in neat type for acceptance, rejection, evaluation, judgment.
This semester in my Introduction to Poetry Writing class, I learned the anatomy of this risk, memorized the accelerated pulse, the quavering voice, and the shaking hands. I shared things I’ve never shared before with close friends or significant others, let alone strangers. I wrote about unfortunate family histories, sexual awakening, my deepest spiritual truths, questions, resentments, and doubts. I ingrained it in myself and I saw it manifested in others as they shared their lives and their voices with me. We separated the experiences from the form and challenged each other to improve. To write what we know and to stop apologizing for it.
But when I peruse my notebook of quotes, the most piercingly personal are universal. They aren’t about what I know, they are what we know. Most often, they are what we owe: to ourselves, to others, and to writing. Margaret Atwood said that a word after a word after a word is power, but a word after a word after a word about words can be the most powerful sentence of all.
We write what we know, so we write about the beauty of words and the ache of self. We acknowledge that writing has given us everything we are: our illusions, our identity, our sanity, and our insanity. We write love letters to language and call it metafiction. We write the way we live: with the same perspective, with the same insecurity, with the same inability to separate the tangled threads of reality and fiction.
“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ~Sylvia Plath
““Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~Anton Chekov
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ~Ray Bradbury
“Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.” ~Margaret Atwood
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.” ~Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” ~Aldophus Huxley, Brave New World
“With writing, we have second chances.” ~Jonathan Safran Foer. Everything Is Illuminated
“Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke
“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.” ~Allen Ginsberg