Thursday, March 16, 2017

On "writing what you know"

"Write what you know" is one of those phrases that, depending on which circles you utter it in, can cause nods, shrugs, or mouth-frothed invective. There is a group of writers for whom it is nearly a trigger phrase, and if you utter it in what seems earnest, you will be hit with a counter-spell spoken with the force of a Huxleyan hypnopaedic suggestion, a la Brave New World. The counter-punch will go something like this: "Write not what you know, but what you can imagine."

The testy writers have a point. If we all stuck to only writing about things in which we had a certain level of expertise, most of us wouldn't have much to write about. Anis Shivani has noted that most writers enter the academy at a young age, after which they all start to have the same experiences: teaching, writing, struggling for tenure. The only common human experiences they have to relate to are the quotidian ones of relationships, break-ups, having children, struggling to make a living in the middle class, parents aging, etc. If someone from this class of writers does want to write about some specific human experience he knows first-hand, he often has to go back to his youth. This leads to a unbalanced percentage of stories written from a child's perspective.

Shivani is probably too hard on writers in the academies. If the people I knew in graduate school were a representative sample, a lot of them weren't in their early-to-mid-twenties. They'd done at least some other things besides go to undergrad and then go straight to graduate school. Joshua Ferris, whom I just talked about at length in my last post, worked in an advertising agency for a few years before going to get his M.F.A. It was enough to help him write a masterpiece. For a fertile imagination, it doesn't take a whole ton of experience for the seeds of a great story to grow.

But what about writing a story for which one has no direct experience? The white, middle-class American woman in her fifties who wants to write about the life of a child soldier in Sierra Leone? My initial reaction is to feel there's nothing wrong with this. If it's impossible to use imagination and human empathy to guess what the existence of another human is like, then what's the point of writing at all? What's the point of learning, or thinking?

My wife is a white woman from a middle-class Ohio background. She should have failed when she started teaching in 99% black Baltimore. But much to my amazement, her preparation for that life in the form of reading a healthy dose of African-American literature prior to starting her teaching career actually was in some form helpful to life teaching real-life African-Americans. Through reading and almost only reading, she was able to become as reasonably prepared as one can become for the alternate universe that is Baltimore City Schools. So imagination of even a totally different cultural framework must be in some sense possible.

But not all dalliances of lay people are equal

Nonetheless, I can still easily come up with examples of writing where I knew the writer was an outsider and I was bothered by a gap in knowledge.

Example One: Writing about the military

Almost every Best American Short Stories anthology or Pushcart anthology for many years now has had at least one story with a military character. Writers seem to be big on post-war characters reflecting back on their experiences. While my own military experience doesn't exactly make me Johnny Fifty-Cal, I know when I'm reading bullshit. Tom Paine's Bagram made it into the heady journal Glimmertrain, in spite of the fact that at one point in the story he accidentally transposed the numbers of the military intelligence unit the main character belonged to (the editors must not have seen it, either). It was pretty obvious to me Paine only knew about that unit from reading about it. His details were those someone would pick out if you'd only read about it. Not the place--a place you can fake well enough from just having researched it--I mean the whole ethos of being in the military. David Ebenbach, who is a member of the Washington Writers' Publishing House (the people about to publish me), whom I've met, whom I like, and whose book of short stories Into the Wilderness I rather like, has one story in it about a mother and daughter who seem to be coping with the death of the father. He seems to have died while on active duty in the military. It's a fine story, but the mother is living in a shack, and I just kept thinking "Every service member has $400,000 in life insurance! What did she do with all that money?"

Example Two: When journalists happen to write about something I know about

Even though most media outlets do have journalists who specialize a little bit (the Asia correspondent, the Science correspondent), they all end up having to cram-study for some stories as they're reporting on them. No media outlet can have reporters who are experts in everything they report on. A journalist's job is to get an explanation from an expert and translate it. But often, when I see reporting on something I happen to know really well, I can see that the journalist didn't quite get it. She has memorized a bunch of facts quickly and is spilling them back out, but didn't quite grasp the context. Sometimes, I know the picture drawn is so cartoonishly out of whack, it's like the person isn't even talking about the same thing I know from long experience. Like, say, if a journalist who didn't know about gyms did a report on one and came away thinking everyone there was a masochist.

I don't really get any schadenfreude out of this. It doesn't fill me with hubris to see journalists miss the point. It fills me with humility as a writer. Maybe I'm not really as able to translate some other culture or sub-culture to the world as I think I am. And not only as a writer--as a translator, too, I feel this sense of duty to be circumspect.

So what's the balance?

I don't know. I do know that I find the whole notion of "appropriation" to be a bullshit idea, one that is unequally applied. In the short story "A Cinnabon at Mondawmin," (in The Potomac Review right now) which I wrote thinking about the experiences of some of my wife's former students, the main character rejects the notion that his white teacher might be appropriating a story from him: "You said that was a fancy word for stealing, and there's nothing I have I wouldn't gladly let someone steal from me. Want my busted hairline I got because my cousin cuts my hair instead of a real barber? Take it. Want my bootleg Marbury shoes I got because I can't afford Jordans? Take them, too!"

If you can raid a culture and pull a good story out of it, have at it. Nobody owns interesting. However, you will be at a disadvantage in trying to tell that story against an equally talented writer who is coming from inside that other culture. In fact, you might be at a disadvantage against someone who isn't even as talented as you. I've written before that I prefer reading science fiction by Carl Sagan to whatever bloated, boring, bullshit it is Andrea Barret writes, even though Barret also writes about science and is a very skilled writer. Sagan, though, was a professional scientist, whereas Barret dropped out of Zoology grad school. It shows in how they approach the subject. Barret sees science as an excuse to rhapsodize about the human condition. Sagan finds science itself enough to gush about.

I suppose if I had to pick a rule, rather than "write what you know" or "write what you can imagine," I'd choose "write the story you don't have to force." Seriously, when you've got a good story, you know it. That doesn't mean you didn't have to scratch and dig before you found that well--maybe for years. But when you find that well and the water comes pouring out, you know it. If that means you are writing stories over and over about the same kinds of things, fine. Vonnegut is probably my favorite 20th century writer, and he re-used places, characters, and plot points. If you tend to find stories all over the place, fine. If you watch a show about Borneo or read an article about lumberjacks in Yellow Knife and feel inspired, follow it. If it's good, you'll know it.

If the thing doesn't come to life because you just can't imagine a life so alien, you have two choices. Give up, or learn more. When have you learned enough? When the story gets good. Melville didn't need to finish his whole stint on a merchant vessel to be able to write about life at sea. I only worked with Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants for about a year, but that year gave me a lot of stories. You might screw up a few details, and people like me will nitpick when you do, but it probably won't doom the story. You probably don't have to spend a lifetime at whatever it is you want to write about. But you need to find some way--vicarious or in person--to live that life deeply enough to be able to bring some part of it to life.


  1. No, you don't always know if you've got a good story. You only know if you think it's good, but to see how deceptive that can be, consider the realm of song and all those disastrous auditions on American Idol.

    Of course, any historical novel is written by an outsider. What always gives away the outsider is the things that he feels obliged to explain. Neither you or I would feel obliged to explain the internet, if we referenced in a story. We could take it for granted as part of our lived experience. But the outsider, sometimes to show that he's done his homework, sometimes because he doesn't assume that his audience will know, often feels compelled to explain the very items that would not be explained by a true insider.

    For me, the novel by Andre Dubus, House of Sand and Fog, betrayed almost at every page that the guy knew absolutely nothing about San Francisco or the Bay Area. His topography of SF was absurd; at one point he says that locals refer to El Camino Real as Camino Real (or something like that) when locals refer to it as "the El."

    Completely agree with your comments on appropriation, although in the area of film, it seems we're really heading there.

    1. That's a great example of what I was thinking of. I could have gone on and on with examples. Hardly anyone writes evangelical Christian characters in a way I find convincing. You almost have to have lived it-as in, really believed it--to get that right. There was an article in Rolling Stone I read in '06 or so--incredibly pompous piece. The guy barely listened to the troops he was embedded with. He could have written it at home. He'd quote one of them, and then talk over him for two paragraphs. He listened to his troops so badly, he actually quoted the expression "locked, cocked, and ready to rock" as "I'm like cock and ready to rock." His editor apparently didn't realize that made no sense, either. But he was, in fact, "like (a) cock."

  2. people get the military stuff wrong all the time. in film, even something as simple as a military haircut is a rare thing.