Write what you know—and be sorry
A novelist known for his 'mind-bending' originality takes aim at the most common of all literary aphorisms
Published: April 8, 2010
Write what you know ... and prepare a toast. To a life without shooting stars that carry strange life forms, talking animals, machines that come to life, mysterious strangers, sudden revelations, words you’ve never heard before—and the thoughts in other people’s minds. You may have to forfeit forever the music of a close-range gunshot on a cool blue morning or the clash of battle-axes at the gates of Mordor (although you may not miss the hiss of the demon who’s taken over your spouse’s body).
Zanesville, Kris Saknussemm's first novel
Indeed, you stand to sacrifice much more than you gain by following this stale and unexamined bit of advice (which is offered with relentless frequency in writing programs, workshops, conferences, articles, etc.). In fact, the list is so very long of what you stand to lose that it forms a curious index of precisely what so many of us might well consider to be what literature and therefore good writing actually is about (including a lot of passion and bizarre situations that get us aroused).
Yet it seems like such innocent, practical advice, doesn’t it? So, perhaps we should both unpack it, discuss its weaknesses, and consider a counter-strategy, for the core issue is peculiar to writing and separates it decisively from the other arts. It also applies, I’d maintain, to all forms of writing, from fiction and poetry to expository and rhetorical writing.
It’s flawed from the start. The first reason to seriously prosecute this advice, as I’ve already suggested, is that it doesn’t address or apply to some of the most significant and beloved works of literary art in history. That is one of the reasons why there is such a profound disconnect between literature and the teaching of fiction writing in all but specific genre contexts, such as fantasy and science fiction.|
Writing of this kind is seen by some highbrow people as somehow “common” and less than literary—and the immense popularity and commercial success of much of this kind of writing only strengthens their certainty. Surely it can’t be “great” writing if a lot of people like it. That’s an emotionally deadly point of view to have—and these same people often have difficulty with the whole field of children’s literature.
But I would more simply say that if you’re going to have a working principle to guide you, then it had better work. Really helpful principles have a reverse-engineering capability whereby they illuminate other examples rather than having to exclude or dodge them.
• Knowledge must be discovered. To paraphrase the poet James Merrill, “I don’t actually know what I think until I write it.” Writing is a process of discovery. If you set out with the proposition that somehow what you have to write about pre-exists and is separate from your writing, you make a ghost of your work from the start and paradoxically also unhaunt it. The magic doesn’t arise, it must be imposed—and it doesn’t like that much.
More dangerously perhaps, you can also imagine you’ve done more actual labor than you have. Writing can fail on the page, but it’s not even born unless it rises up from the page. Every piece of writing is a bootstrap affair whereby you use the crisis of the next sentence to get to the one beyond. When things are really flowing, a subconscious process has taken over—the best experience in the world, many people say.
What’s really happening is that you’re allowing yourself to discover what you really do know—what you can prove by what’s on the page. The only way characters and scenes come to life for readers is if there’s a true (and sometimes even worrying) sense of discovery and animation for the writer. When you yourself wonder, where did this come from? ... then things are happening.
Interestingly, this sense of writing being not just an iteration of what you know has also been solidly embraced in the expository writing field. The leading rhetoric and composition texts present the nexus of critical thinking and persuasive writing as a unified whole, with the tools of writing being tools to analyze arguments and identify and refine a position rather than just advance one.
This is a huge evolution from where things were at when I was in school, when the assumption was that everyone had to start with a thesis and then deploy arguments in support. Now the concept of an argument is seen first as a means of identifying and refining a thesis. If this can be valid in the context of nonfiction, how much more crucial to a story finder?
No one knows enough. As Coleridge once said, “I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories.” Of course, once he’d accumulated such knowledge, Coleridge would’ve been the first one to argue the need to integrate and dramatize it through the esemplastic power of the imagination. (Cf. Ecclesiastes 12:12: “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”)|
There is also the matter of what you may feel compelled to write about lying outside the bounds of acceptable knowledge and experience. For instance, sex with large, luminous amphibians, or more mundanely, cold-blooded murder. “Knowing” about such things as these is contraindicated.
• What you do know may be wrong. Whether you ask the cognitive scientists or you go to the courtrooms and police stations, you’ll hear a consistent message. People’s perceptions and memories are suspect. Eyewitness testimony, once so valued, isn’t trusted anymore like it used to be. Hard forensic evidence earns convictions and psychological experimentation continuously shows how fragile what we think we “know” is. The emerging model of cognition is as a sustained act of imagination, and therefore continuously active participation in the consensual hallucination of reality.
• It represents the plague of reality. It’s no coincidence we live in an era rife with “reality TV” and “memoirs,” while in the world of speculative fiction and film one of the biggest recurring subjects is the very nature of reality —the fact that it may be literally a hallucination, a simulation, a setup.
Anyone who reads heard of the bust-up over James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. But didn’t memoirs used to be things Winston Churchill would leave behind after half a century of public life? All of the hoopla was in my view a total distortion of the actual issue. It was the death-of-the-imagination people who got that work published in the first place. Why green-light a work like that? Oh, because it’s “true.” Oops. Meanwhile, some exceptional voices and minds on the genuinely nonfiction front—from more popular writers like Lawrence Weschler to serious multilingual scholars like Frances Yates—are very open about the imaginative leaps that make their work work.
• It misses the magic. The final reason to take the “write what you know” advice with a huge grain of salt is that very grain. It’s a metaphor, a conceptual-linguistic hierogram, and that’s finally the inescapable essence of writing. Painters and visual artists have been on to this a long time, and French painter Maurice Denis formalized the principle forcibly: “A picture ... is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
Somehow, writers often forget how this applies to the page. And that’s OK. But it’s a question of in what way you forget.
Of course, there’s some truth in the expression “You can’t get to it if you haven’t gone through it.” But thousands of men went to sea in mid-19th-century America. Only Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick—and while that story benefits enormously from his in-depth knowledge of the whaling industry of the day, many would also say this is what drags the story down. It’s when Ahab is solemnly passing the chalice around and pointing to the doubloon nailed to the mast, with all the rigging luminous with St. Elmo’s fire and every last man on board knows, as does the reader, that that ship has sailed clean off all the charts and everyone is in new territory (or very old territory)—that’s when, and why, people keep finding this story.
No 1850s whaling captain would’ve spoken like a mix of the Shakespearean kings, the King James Bible and a dash of Zoroaster. Writing has always been about magic, illusion, persuasion, circus, trickery, the scam, dreams and nightmares. If you want an honest, sober calling, lay bricks. I say embrace the flim-flam and bamboozle. Seduction. Discovery. Invention. Risk. As Jack London, who had a vast amount of life experience despite a short life, said, “I’m merely pretending to be writer. I just pretend very hard.”
# # #
Kris Saknussemm is the author of the novels Zanesville and Private Midnight, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“James Ellroy meets David Lynch in this addictive mix of noir and supernatural horror.”). His shorter work has appeared in numerous literary journals. Random House will bring out his third novel, Enigmatic Pilot, next year.|
This article originally appeared on the Authors Promoting Authors Web site: www.authorspromotingauthors.blogspot.com.
(This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.)