What a Writer Knows and Doesn’t Know

In all my years of teaching at the University of Illinois, I sometimes grappled with a bit of writing advice that seemed to hover in the air, always ready to be plucked and displayed for a classroom discussion about fiction: Write What You Know.

It’s an odd statement that can easily be reduced to justifying a lack of curiosity or advocating a safety of vision: only write about those things, people, events that you think you know well; this “knowing” will give you authority. While it is important to understand your subject to the best of your ability, the phrase seems to imply that one must not approach territory that is unknown to you.

I think that my former writing teacher and mentor Grace Paley offered a clear path out of this conundrum: “You write from what you know but you write into what you don’t know.” In other words, while you might start from a familiar place, you then use that as a base for exploring, for taking risks. What you know of yourself, for example, is a way to try to understand others, a method of developing empathy for your budding fictional characters.

What is this “knowing,” really? We are often foreign countries to ourselves, and our internal map is constantly changing. And yet examining this fluid state of selfhood is what is needed to construct the contradictions of the imagined people in our fictions.

And yet. Writing from what we know is important.

I remember a student in one of my introductory fiction writing classes from many years back, a student who was smart in his comments about his fellow students’ work, was ambitious about his writing, but was having trouble finding his voice. His first story for the class recounted the adventures of some urban vampires, and though earnest, it seemed as familiar as any movie or TV show featuring vitamin D-deprived, blood-sucking immortals. In workshop, the class and I suggested that perhaps the supernatural wasn’t his subject.

His next story followed the bloodletting of a serial killer, and again, the subject seemed as familiar as any movie or TV show featuring nightmarish loners with a collection of sharp knives. The student was clearly frustrated with the class reactions to his efforts, so after class, I asked if he might want to come see me in my office so we could discuss what he’d write for his next story.

And he did drop by, with a first draft of a new story, this one about the Mafia.

“Do you know anyone in the Mafia?” I asked.

“Well, no,” he replied.

“So where does your knowledge of the Mafia come from?”

“From the movies and TV.”

And that was the problem. He wrote from what he knew, but that knowledge was gleaned from television and film. He was trying to create stories out of narrative models he was familiar with, yet these models were far from his own life.

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I found myself asking a question that always made me uncomfortable, considering my conflicted relationship to the phrase Write What You Know. And yet the words came out: “What about your own life, why not write about some aspect of your own life?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“Because I grew up on a farm.”

At first I didn’t know how to respond. He thought he’d grown up in a fiction-free zone. But then I recalled the writer Jane Smiley’s extraordinary novel, A Thousand Acres. The novel is a retelling of the King Lear story, set in the cornfields of Iowa, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. I suggested to my student that he walk across the street to the university bookstore, buy a copy, read it as soon as he could, and then come back to see me.

Three days later he returned. He’d read about one hundred pages of Smiley’s novel and already he was filled with ideas and enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you could write about this!” he said.

Two weeks later he turned into class a stunner of a story.

The story takes place in a farmhouse kitchen at dawn. The main character, a farmer in his early thirties, is having breakfast with his wife and ten year old son, and he is filled with conflicting feelings that he hides from his family. Because once breakfast is over, he’s going to take his young son out to the fields with him for the first time, to teach him how to farm, but for the moment he can’t stop thinking back to when he was young, when his own father introduced him to the harsh realities of farm life.

He had always loved his father dearly, but in the fields his father became a brutal teacher, demanding absolute attention to the smallest detail, and he was quick to punish.

Sitting there at the breakfast table, the farmer remembers how he began slowly loving his father less, how a distance grew between them that never quite erased. Yet he also remembers that his father had only seven fingers left on his two hands, permanent reminders of how dangerous farm work can be. Now the farmer thinks of that maimed hand and he regards his own two unscarred hands, and realizes that his father taught him well. And he knows that he has to teach his own son the same lessons, this son he dearly loves, this son who may eventually grow to love him less because of those necessary lessons.

The breakfast finally done, father and son leave together in the early morning for the fields.

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This was one of the finest stories a student ever wrote for any of my classes, and it has no “action” to speak of, it takes place entirely in the farmer’s mind, while breakfast is being served. No one else in the story knows what the farmer is thinking. Not his son. Not his wife. Only the reader. The reader who has been given the gift of listening in on another’s inner life. No plot tricks or cheap violence are needed to create a story of heightened tension and emotional truth.

That young writer had squared the circle. He dived into a world he’d grown up in, the farming life, and yet from there he ventured into imagining another person’s interior self. He wrote from what he knew and he wrote into what he didn’t yet know.

This, I think, is why we write stories, why we read stories. Not to be satisfied by the comforts of the familiar, but to be given passage to a new landscape, to be taken to a place where we might not otherwise go, a place where we might bridge the gap of solitude that divides us.

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September 3rd, 2018 by admin