“Write what you know!”, that’s the advice. That’s how we end up with a lot of the same characters, and they’re much like ourselves or people we know. “Write what you know” is scary – why would anyone want to read about my life? Disaffected youth – unless you’re an amazing writer or have an amazing twist, surely that’s just same/same, yeah? No, what I know is boring!
Henry James (in “The Art of Fiction“) wrote that “writing what you know” can be almost anything, as long as you’re “one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”. Even so, it feels like I’m writing something pretty imagined or untrue if my experience of a thing only extends as far as having seen it from a distance. For James, this is okay. But he, too, says that writing what you know is the way to go.
For a long time I did this – I wrote the same poem over and over, I wrote characters who were my age and in my relationships. Nothing differed very much – I spent a long time producing similar work. When I broke from this, I swung the other way – writing characters very unlike me, in situations which required a lot of research. Sometimes this worked; some of this stuff I’m proud of. Some of it is also just plain rubbish.
This semester, I have to pitch and submit an extract of “My Novel” (such an optimistic thing to call this nebulous being) for a university subject. I started to plan out a novel about a character I’ve had on the back-burner for some time. He’s a structural engineer who’s obsessed with the possibility that if his buildings aren’t sound, people could die. He’s a solid character, I do like him. He’s based loosely on someone I know (so this would count in James’ definition of “what I know”), and I am interested in writing him, eventually. However, in trying to start planning a novel about this guy, I realised it didn’t ring true. I was writing yet another story I wasn’t sure about, that was trying too hard to be NEW! I realised that by avoiding “What I know” in the strictest sense, of characters like myself or my immediate family, I’ve been denying some amazing material from my own life.
My family history is mostly a mystery to me. It’s a light that shines (dimly) only as far back as my grandparents on Mum’s side, and to my father on his side. Even within that limited space, I have the makings of a novel. It’s a matter of being comfortable with the fact that it warrants writing, and it will make a good story. Deep down I know it will, but I’ve been so afraid of being the stuck, clichéd writer who can only write what they know, that I’ve avoided it and gotten stuck in the other extreme.
I’ve talked to both my parents about writing our story, or some fictionalised semblance of it, and they’re both fine with that. What comes next, I suppose, is about the ethics of writing what you know. This question, I suspect, is much harder to answer.
On a panel called “Mining The Personal” at last year’s EWF, Benjamin Law talked about how he handed everyone in his family a red pen and a copy of his manuscript before it went anywhere. I think this is the most honest approach, and one I’ll certainly be following myself. But how do I wrangle the material in the first place?
What do you think about the ethics of writing (fictional or non-fictional) personal stories?