Author discusses writing what you don't know


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As Jim Heynen sat at a table toward the back of Capanna Coffee with a cup of black coffee in front of him, he stared out a window facing a playground on which children hurriedly climbed up the stairs of the jungle gym.

"There's a story everywhere," the author said.

As a part of the Eleventh Hour, Heynen, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 1968, will host a session titled "Write What You Don't Know About" at 11 a.m. today in 101 Biology Building East.

The session focuses on the idea that writers should write what they know about, but they should also expand their knowledge of the situations they focus on.

The expansion of knowledge comes from writers' natural instinct to rebel against the rules of what is known, Heynen told The Daily Iowan.

"Whenever a rule gets cast in stone, it behooves the creative writer to say this seems to be too much of an absolute rule," he said. "The problem, if you take it as an absolute rule, is it can lead you down the dead end of memory."

One example Heynen gave of an author using this method is Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage: an episode of the American Civil War. Crane had never been in the Civil War (he was born six years after it ended), but he had gone beyond his experiences on the football field in order to come up with the emotions needed to make the story realistic.

"He remembered being humiliated in football," he said. "I'm glad he didn't write about high-school football. He went along with a story that is about dishonor. He went into the unknown about Civil War battle."

Heynen, who has written 22 novels, stories, and books of poetry, said going into the unknown is what makes a story that much better for a reader.

"When you write only about the 'know,' you can make the assumption that just because it happened, it's going to be interesting," he said. "That's a false assumption. It becomes part of the craft to make what is familiar to you come alive for the reader."

UI English Professor Bonnie Sunstein agrees.

"Even when you start with what you know, you need to add the dimensions of reflection and research and combine all those into some sort of a universal message or universal idea for a reader, because why would a reader want to read it otherwise," said Sunstein, who has been teaching for 43 years.

UI nonfiction writing Associate Professor Jeff Porter, said he also practices going beyond what he knows about a topic.

"As a writer, I myself like to push far beyond what I know," he said. "If only because my greatest fear is not the apocalypse but boredom — or worse banality."

Heynen said he hopes the participants in the session will begin to ask more questions before writing.

"Say it's a participant who is getting older and doesn't know what it's like to get really old and wonders what is would be like to be over 100," he said. "That it will open up questions and possibilities."

And if there was one piece of advice Heynen could give to writers, he said it would be simple.

"Don't blame anyone else for what is happening in your writing life," he said.

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