From William Shakespeare to WG Sebald, these books are written less to dispel mystery than to accept it
Early in every writer’s apprenticeship we’re likely to encounter the advice to “write what you know”. It’s a cliche, but like most, one with a kernel of truth, nodding as it does to the authority implicit in author and reminding us of our contract with readers; they give us their attention in return for some command, on our part, over our subject. One limitation of “write what you know”, however, is the tendency to interpret what we know narrowly as what we’ve experienced, rather than what we’ve learned or researched. But a little further along in our writing education, we’re liable to encounter a refinement of the advice, that “we write to know”, reflecting every writer’s intuition that writing is a mode of thinking, of inquiry, and that we often recognise we’ve finished revising a story when we finally understand it or know it.