January 19, 2010

We Only Write What We Know

My students from first semester are typing away at their exams right now, and I am thinking ahead to the poetry course that I start teaching next week. In a recent interview from The Writer's Chronicle, Colum McCann says that he tells his students, "Don't write about what you know. Write toward what you want to know." He goes on to say, "That's the liberating thing. I try to find out what I want to know. And then I see what comes of it. One has to, in the end, discover that we only write what we know. That's the essence of honesty. But in making that peculiar shotgun leap toward what we supposedly don't know, we transform our vision of what we are."

This feels like a way to marry Frost's idea of "No suprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," to the old adage, "write what you know." McCann's point feels like useful advice for a new writer, and it hits me like a total revelation. Elizabeth Bishop used to tell her students that they didn't need to worry about having "something to say." If they worked at the craft of making a poem, what they needed to say would inevitably surface.

These are perfect reminders for me to carry into the work of teaching poetry next week...


  1. Good stuff to think about. Thanks

  2. i've often struggled with how to keep solidly planted in the present while keeping sight of where i want to go. i like that notion - of writing toward what you want to know.