It's Not What You Know, It's What You Feel

It was forty three years ago this week that man first set foot on the moon and I was there. Well, I wasn’t ‘there’ there, of course, I was here on Earth watching it on our telly. I probably shouldn’t overstate how hard I was watching it on that telly either. After all, I was only six. 

I do remember the time being entirely focused around the black and white images in the corner of the room and I also remember looking out my bedroom window at the moon and marvelling that men were walking on it as I watched. Although I think that may have been on some subsequent mission.

My point about all this is that Neil said it wrong.

When he stepped out of that lunar module and touched the surface of the moon for the very first time, he had a thing all prepared to say but he said it a little bit wrong. I believe he was meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Which is a pretty good thing to say. Of course, what he actually said was, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He dropped the ‘a’. It’s understandable, really. It was a high pressure situation, what’s an ‘a’ between friends? Nothing, as far as I am concerned. The boy did great. He is an Armstrong , after all.

What interests me, really, is what happened to that phrase afterwards. Despite being said wrong, despite just effectively saying the same thing twice in the same sentence, it became accepted. It became a truism almost. Something which was right and proper and full of wisdom even though it was said wrong and, as a result didn't really stack up at all.

It’s like that car stunt in Diamonds are Forever, where the red car goes up on two wheels. It seems to make sense but really it doesn’t make any sense at all and the more you look at it, the less sense it makes.

I tend to think the same thing has also happened with one of the most famous pieces of writing advice.

“Write what you know.” This writing advice states. “Write what you know,” and so many people mistakenly try to live their writing lives in accordance with that advice.

I don’t know who said it first. I could probably go and look it up but it’s not the point here. The point is that I think they had some really good writing advice to give but, just like with Neil Armstrong on the Moon, it came out a little bit wrong and it has since been adopted as some kind of senseless gospel.

You see, I don’t think the guy or gal who said this meant to say, “Write what you know.” I think they meant to say, “Write what you feel.” Perhaps they said, “Write what you know you feel,” and it got edited down too much.

I mean, what kind of books would we have if people only ever wrote what they knew?  What kind of films? I went to the shops, I bought the paper, I have a headache, the dog had a shit in the back hall… it wouldn’t be edifying would it.

We can write whatever the hell we want. We’ve proved this time and again. We can write murders without murdering anyone, car chases without crashing anything and sex… (blushes, ‘moves on). 

But here’s the thing.  All these murders and car chases and… (blushes, ‘moves on) don’t mean a thing if you don’t ‘feel’ them. That writing advice – that very good writing advice – is actually telling us to put our feelings into what ever it is we are writing. If it’s a car chase, we might think about how if felt when we banged our head on that kitchen cupboard door that time. We remember that and that’s how it feels when our car crashes and your character’s head slaps the driver’s window. 

It’s like method acting for writers. Write what you know you feel. Use what you feel to make the writing convincing and real. It works. 

And if you know what you feel, then you don’t have to know all the surrounding stuff, you can easily research it or even make it all up and it will probably be just fine.  “Write what you know you feel,” they should have said, “then you could go and write anything.” 

You could go and write a war even though you’ve never been in one. You could go and write a love story in some distant country far away, using the things you know you feel right here.

You could go and write a man stepping gingerly down for the first time onto the grey dusty surface of a Moon.

And you could have him say exactly what you want him to say. 


Jim Murdoch said...

I always assumed Armstrong was using ‘Man’ as in mankind rather than an individual man.

As far as the advice to write what you know goes I’ve never really seen the point of it. How can anyone write what they don’t know? They might not have been able to articulate it before but they knew it. Unless they’ve had to do a pile of research but then, research done, they still can only write about what they’ve absorbed. For me the process of writing is revelatory. When I wrote in Milligan and Murphy “there are no reasons for unreasonable things” I sat back and thought, Christ, that it so true. How come I never thought to put it that way before? The writing process clarified my position on why I’ve done certain things in my life that I’ve never been able to explain to my satisfaction It was new to me. But it was still within me.

Writing allows us to relive the past, to try out alternative solutions. To make happen what we felt ought to have happened. I can’t say I’m guilty of self-indulgence in that regard. I’m just not especially interested in autobiography as a subject. I do steal details from my past but, removed from their natural context, they take on a life of their own.

Of course the next big challenge for an astronaut will be to come up with something to say when he’s the first man (or woman) to step onto the surface of Mars. In Species II they went with, "Not for one nation, one people, or one creed, but for all humankind." Sean Hill in ‘Lt. Dork’ went with, "I did it Harrington! I'm on the surface! Feels like walking on the beach." Not so inspired then. According to AltHistory Wiki the first man on Mars was Theo Bell in 1967. His first words on the Red Planet were, "This is for all those who saw it before we got here." I couldn't find a quote from Capricorn One. I like the way Mark J. Howard ends his short story ‘First Words’:

As he placed his foot on the seventh rung of the ladder and spied the Martian surface mere inches below him, he ran over the words one last time in his head, making sure he could remember them exactly, and cleared his throat in preparation for his big and historic moment. Suddenly, the seventh rung snapped and Hooper fell heavily onto his bottom and then tumbled over backwards into the ruddy sand.

* * *

It took a few moments for the signals to reach the Earth, but well within the hour children all over the world were asking, “Mommy, what’s a motherfucker?”

That said James Marshall’s short story of the same name ends with the astronaut pondering whether or not to accept Coca Cola’s offer of a billion dollars to say ‘Coca-Cola.’ That’s probably more believable.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Jim. My point is that, if was using man as in mankind then he said the same thing again in the second half of the sentence and so all sense was lost. I'm not blaming him at all, I would have poo-ed probably. :)