Dear authors, blogger, novelists, and poets: It is often said that you should write what you know. Literally, you can do nothing else. Try writing about something that you know nothing about. You can’t do it, because you don’t know what you don’t know. There are many things within the bounds of human knowledge that are outside of our own, personal sphere of knowledge. Nothing drives this home more for me than when I’m reading a book in which the author’s knowledge set and mine have places where they don’t overlap. For example, right now I’m working my way through Salman Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s world is very different than my own. He knows a ton about India and London, and the lives of Indian immigrants to London. He knows a ton about a ton of other things, names and places I’ve never heard of. This means I’m expanding what I know just by reading. Which, in turn, allows me to write better, because there’s more that I know. Books refer to other books, as Umberto Eco points out. If you have not read a lot of books in a given genre or on a certain topic, you have a weak point of reference in terms of that entire sphere of human knowledge.
My 15 year old son, who is interested in working in the film industry in just a few short years, seems to have grasped this concept. He’s going after film in a way few other kids his age would do. Last week he watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Casablanca; and Citizen Kane, this week he’s catching up on animation, watching The Lion King. I was astonished that he hadn’t seen this one yet, but then realized that famous Disney picture came out 9 years before he was born, and it just wasn’t something we happened to have shown him when he was little. He’s sensitive about it. “I hate it when people look at me funny because I haven’t seen The Lion King.” I’m afraid he’s going to eventually find out that you can’t watch everything that’s ever been produced.
I reminded my son that I had bought a book called Fiasco for him a few years ago. This book details the hubris behind every major Hollywood box-office flop (up until around 2005). You always learn more from failures than you do from successes. Read books about peoples’ failures, and learn from their mistakes. Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out that one of the best business books he ever read was initially un-publishable, because the title was What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. (Full disclosure, I haven’t read this one yet, myself, but I think I should soon!) We think it will help us to read about successes, but it’s not nearly as useful as something like this.
We tend to see what’s been produced in our own lifetime. We tend to read the newest books.
But it’s those older books that have stood the test of time that are most worth our while. They are the ones that all the other new books are referring to!
You can’t write what you don’t know, and reading more is the best way to expand your own possibilities. The minute we think we know everything that’s worth knowing is the minute we should quit writing.