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by Devon Taylor
Write what you know.
We’ve all heard that, right? From the moment you put pen to paper in the stunningly optimistic hope of becoming a writer, this is the advice you’re given. Write what you know.
On its face, the aphorism makes good sense. How the heck are you supposed to write what you don’t know? Your teachers implore you to mine your known world for details, experiences, characters. Anything to make your stories feel real. Somewhere along the way, Hemingway’s name got tagged to the advice and, really, who are we to disagree with ol’ Hem?
This past week novelists Josh Weil and Mike Harvkey visited Lighthouse and suggested we do just that.
Weil and Harvkey argued that writing what you know leads to stale, autobiographical fiction. Rather than trying to recreate your world through stories, they argued, set your stories in places you’ve never been and tell them from perspectives of people unlike yourself. This allows you to create colorful characters whose actions are distinctly their own. You can live inside the mind of a middle-aged millionaire who has taken off on an African safari, like Saul Bellow did in Henderson the Rain King, or a violent, uneducated murderer sent to death row, like Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song, or even a 22-year-old ex-serviceman preaching The Church of God Without Christ, as Flannery O’Connor demonstrated in Wise Blood. By doing this, you’re able to free up your imagination in a way that your personal experiences limit.
Weil explained how, in his first attempt at drafting a novel, he wrote from the perspective of a man going through a divorce. At the time, Weil was going through a divorce. While his suffering perhaps allowed him to portray the real pain and anguish that accompanies a failed marriage, he wound up writing a novel about, well, himself. By tapping into an experience so close to him, he was unable to separate his characters from himself.
Harvkey echoed this issue, explaining that when you endeavor to repeat your experiences through your writing, you lose the sense of discovery that the process can offer. It becomes about transcribing an event rather than letting the story unfold to both the reader and writer’s delight.
I know exactly what Weil and Harvkey are getting at. If you’ve ever sat through a creative writing workshop, you know the uncomfortable feeling of reading a story that feels a little too true. When you try to point out gaps in the plot or the ambiguity of a character’s motivation, the writer gets defensive. “But that’s how it happened,” he might say.
Writing is not therapy. Or it shouldn’t be. It’s not about settling scores or revising experiences or exorcising demons. By forcing ourselves away from our own experiences, we open up the opportunity to explore different values and unfamiliar, even uncomfortable points of view. We can choose empathy over solipsism.
And to that end, I agree wholeheartedly with Weil and Harvkey.
But I think what we’re talking about here isn’t craft, but intention. There really is nothing wrong with building a story in a place you know well, with characters that might even remind you of people from your own life. We all come from uniquely distinct places that are worth spending time in as readers. The swamps of Louisiana and the suburbs of Baltimore and the rocky ocean shores of New Hampshire. The problem with these stories is that the lines between the truth and the fiction can get fuzzy. It can be difficult to build new in a familiar place. When we falter, we lean on situations that we know well, so well that we’re not always able to draw them in a complete way. Agendas get tossed in the mix and writing becomes not about discovery, as Harvkey advocates, but about setting the record straight.
Perhaps it’s good advice to write what you don’t know. But it’s also good advice to write what you do. It’s all part of the process of learning how to create. A good writer can construct new stories in both familiar and unfamiliar places. A good writer knows that, no matter how recognizable the scene is, there are layers of truth still yet to be unearthed. And a good writer also knows that, even in stories set in exotic lands with strange people, at its heart, we’re still just talking about what it means to be alive.
My advice? Damn the torpedoes. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Just never stop trying to discover the unknown inside it all.
Devon Taylor is newly transplanted to Denver, Colorado, after finishing her MFA in creative nonfiction at The University of Memphis. She has published essays in CutBank and The Tottenville Review and is currently at work on her first book.