I took this quote from the beginning of a TED talk (the video is below) that’s on YouTube. It is probably the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
Originally it was for writing fictional stories but I think that it can apply to any kind of writing style:
Writing a story is taking the path of most resistance. You dip your pen in the ink and you begin at the edge of a cliff. You sit and try to express what is inexpressible, and that makes you nervous. You know that every story is a failure but you also know the writer is the one who is not stopped or even phased by failure, and that makes you fearless. You begin not knowing where you’re going to end up, but trusting in your imagination and in the writing process to get you there.
Write about what you don’t understand.
What you don’t know is more important than what you know because that’s what engages your sense of wonder. You sit and you insist on meaning but not on answers. The point is not to answer but to question. Not to solve but to seek. Not to preach but to explore. And you also know this: that life is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.
—How To Write A Story by John Dufresne
“What you don’t know is more important than what you know” — that’s just so perfect. That’s wisdom everybody should witness. I can’t get over the last sentence either: it’s so pure and enlightening. So stimulating to hear someone else say that life does not have to make any sense because it never will. Life is too short to have a definite message. I have to admit though, while I write about the news and economics — about reality — it’s very punishing because it doesn’t seem to be factual at times. The concept that our barbaric history has actually happened, is sometimes too thorny to grasp. Maybe our brains are too small for that kind of reasoning yet, I don’t know.
Whenever I do write either non-fiction or fiction, a poem or whatever — I do feel this need to mean something. I have always had certain ideas that I need to work out in a story of some kind… It never matters what the medium they are in — meaning in either fiction, non-fiction, blog, poem or screenplay form… That part of the writing process just flows from the idea. I figure out if it is non-fiction or fiction and go from there.
I’m learning every day that the purpose of writing is to express a notion so that others can interpret it. A writer gets no answers from reading their own writing either because we are supplying the questions. Readers are providing the answers. That’s why we all have to write about the things that we aren’t that intimate with because then we are trying something exotic — something new. That’s what art is all about: taking risks and inspiring others.
Whenever someone finds out that I’m a writer, the first question they usually ask is: “what exactly do you write?” And that question has been sticking out like a sore thumb lately because I never know how to answer it… I never put much thought into that topic ironically, because I’ve always just been a writer. I’m a very impulsive artist. That characteristic definitely stretches into my literary conquests as well. I’m all over the place. I’m almost obsessive-compulsive about not being tied down to a certain label or style of art. I feel drawn in by an assortment of topics, and I just write how I feel. I don’t like saying that I’m a certain anything, actually, because I don’t want to exclude anything.
I’m all over the place and I’m almost obsessive-compulsive about not being tied down to a certain label or style of art. I want to push my own limits and make things that are weird, not ordinary. I feel drawn in by an assortment of topics, and I just write how I feel. I don’t like saying that I’m a certain anything, actually, because I don’t want to exclude anything.
I have go-to categories or triggers, which always bring on inspiration for me to write more. So if I’m in a slump, I just read a lot of books. After I read only a few pages, I usually have to stop and write down something that came to mind in those few moments. It is also a constant distraction… Sometimes I don’t finish a book for months because I move onto my own writing. It’s hard to suppress my thoughts, and I forget things pretty easily when I’m really in my zone.
I’m reminded of the Greek philosopher who never wrote anything down in his whole life. He actually discouraged it. Funny if you think about it — a philosopher who denounces writing? Something which we all do in order to learn new things… Seems pretty odd. Everything we know about him today was actually written down by his students — most notably was Plato. I’m talking about the great Socrates, who once said:
And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.
You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding;
you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.
—Phaedrus by Plato
What do I say to those who ask me what exactly do I write? I tell them that I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t care to think about it too much. I just tell them that I write whatever is important to me at that time, and who knows — maybe I’m just writing things down to inspire others and to remember.