Sunday, February 7, 2010

Write What You Know(?)

Write what you know.

This is a pretty common aphorism among writers, particularly fiction authors and those in genres such as travel writing.

In the contexts where I've encountered it, this maxim seems to be further distilled into the idea that you should write from the perspective of what your personal experience has taught you about people, places, events, and activities.

I struggle with this tenet in all its literal manifestations. I haven't done a lot of things or been a lot of places; more specifically, I haven't done many wild or risky things or traveled to exotic and dangerous places. I'm not inclined by nature to start now. While over the course of my life I've always had a knack for being personable, over the last decade or so I've struggled to connect with other people beyond a very superficial level.

So to write what I know leaves me with what I have experienced. And I have some fundamental problems with the most literal and practical applications of that approach:
  1. I have been part of a lot of ill-timed, delusional, and broken relationships. I don't feel like writing in a direct way about any of them. Sometimes out of respect for a relationship that survived a rough patch, sometimes out of a respect for the privacy and implicit trust of those I once cared about, and sometimes because it is just too painful. I read authors like Michael Chabon and at the same time that I'm impressed and moved by the personal themes he puts upon the page, I can't imagine subjecting my own relationships to that same surgical scalpel and magnification.
  2. It's gotten to the point where I don't trust my memory, at least in terms of the sequencing of events during certain broad periods of my life. There are blocks of years in my twenties and thirties where I'm not certain of the order in which things happened, which plays hell with any pretense of assigning cause and effect. When I try to zoom in on specific events, I have trouble recalling many of the sensory details that seem to be the hallmark of writers who plumb their own lives for material. I become a cinematographer touching up a silent, black and white reel of my own past by dubbing in sound and painting in colors that seem appropriate. To be honest, this confuses me, and I feel like I might be able to improve the clarity of my recollections with some practice.
  3. It was recently suggested to me that I try writing a story of my own life as both a literary and a psychological exercise, then examine it to see how I would change it as an author. I think this is an interesting idea that has some merit. But after sitting down to give it a try, I realized that at this point I have no interest in the story of my own past. It seems very, very predictable in many ways. It also tends to depress me. Books and films like that don't interest me either, hence my constant love for genre fiction and lifelong disinterest in most "literary" slice of life novels and short stories.
Now, you could say that all fiction writers refine the broad strokes of their personal experience into essential truths that they incorporate into imagined people, place, and events. Yet when I read biographies or biographical essays of many writers, it's shocking how directly they transfer the details of their lives onto the page. And so often it is the details that ring true or false for readers and critics. So the act of distillation is harder to pull off than it seems, and is probably best left to more experienced writers who have already made their bones by pulling them free from their flesh and holding them up to the light.

Perhaps my biggest weaknesses as a writer are an unwillingness to offend or to suffer sufficiently for my art. But I also suspect that there's something more lurking around, a difficulty in translating my view of the world for other people, in my inept efforts to connect and communicate the personal.


Aaron DaMommio said...

Huh, usually I see that 'write what you know' aphorism clarified as 'write the genre you know.' In other words, don't hare off and write romance when what you read is sf all the dang time.

Many projects involve lots of research. If you conceived a desire to write a novel set in Haiti, I doubt anyone would tell you 'don't because you don't know it.' They'd say, "So go learn all about Haiti."

I doubt this aphorism is gonna be much use to you.

Doug said...

That works for historical novels, but for a contemporary novel you'd probably be expected to go to Haiti to get firsthand experience. One thing I wish I had more of a knack for is filing the serial numbers off of actual historical events and using them as the framework for speculative fiction, as a lot of authors seem to do. Harry Turtledove did this with his fantasy series about WW II, David Drake has done it quite a bit, and Guy Gavriel Kaye is the absolute master in my view because he's such a better writer than the other two.