In which I question the sagacity of some so-called sage advice
We writers have long had the adage “write what you know” lobbed at us, supposedly an encouragement to use our lives as fodder for crafting powerful stories. I started hearing it soon after expressing any sort of long-term interest in creative writing.
It’s been a newer revelation to me that a debut novel (specifically) ought to adhere strictly to this idea. And frankly, I disagree.
First off, I don’t believe it’s possible to write from a perspective which is not even tangentially informed by your own. You may not be a widow who has slyly dispatched her husband, but your time in the world may have cultivated a cynicism which you convey in your narrative about this widow. True, I am at work on a novel narrated by a young woman; and true, she shares some of my experiences and passions; but her life has gone in a drastically different direction, against the backdrop of a drastically different era, and therein lies the heart and plot of the story. Still, her voice is necessarily shot through with mine; aspects of my personality filter into hers, intentionally and unintentionally. Your perspective is the only one you’ve got, and you can never entirely escape it. In a way, you’re always writing what you know.
Second, I don’t acknowledge an obligation to write about something just because you’ve experienced it, or exactly as you’ve experienced it. For quite a while now I have chipped away at the premise–probably fated to be a novella or a long short story–of a group of know-it-all graduate students trying to prove themselves at an uppity school in Boston. This environment is somewhat familiar to me, though several major details differ, the most major being that the protagonist is male. Changes heighten the excitement and ambition of the process: I have set up my worldview and opinions as a series of guideposts on the journey, not as a destination. The arc of your life need not be the destination of your work. If you want it to be, you’re perfectly entitled, but you should not feel obligated.
Besides, you’re living your experience at this very moment. It’s there regardless. You can write with a conscious eye to that, to tell the story of yourself; you can write to inhabit another body or atmosphere, to imagine a wildly altered trajectory for yourself; and these do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Not to mention that no matter how utterly riveting a life you think you’ve led, you’ll tire of rehashing the same stories over and over, especially when you’re starting out. Take some time off, explore other narratives and situations, and then return to your own life with the retrospective wisdom of age. There’s a better chance of success, or at least of telling an old story in a new way.
Plus you know what they say about truth being stranger. If you come firing out of the gate with a fictionalized version of something crazy that happened to you, your workshop will tear it to shreds. They’ll never believe you, and not because your narrator is seductively unreliable. Do you want your young writing persona to be fundamentally untrustworthy? That reputation will take years to undo. You’ll be the Boy Who Cried Murder-at-the-DMV. Or something.
What is my point? Don’t box yourself in. I see no rush to place undue parameters on your writing, especially if you choose to take the plunge and undertake the daunting task of a novel, which really does not need extra stress heaped on in an attempt to remain faithful to a life script. Go where your gut tells you. Let your mind free itself of all attachments to identity, and wonder at where you end up.
That said, whatever identity/identities you adopt in your work, do the requisite research. Even if you know something about something, you don’t know everything about something. Readers can instantly sense when you are unsure of what you’re talking about. Stephen King may have more or less been his own protagonist in The Shining, but I bet he had to read up on axes/old hotels/Johnny Carson.
Now stop stalling and write already!