The world of writing is littered with clichés about writing for young writers (and to old guys who are young writers, like me). One of the most famous is that I should “write what I know.” I’ve been wondering what that really means?
I read something by Wallace Stegner, who ought to know a thing or two about writing. He said, “If you have to urge a writing student to ‘gain experience with life,’ he is probably never going to be a writer. Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to.” Any life—that is, my life, your life—is enough. Don’t wait, in other words, to gain experience of life; just live and pay attention and write from there.
Carl Jung seems to say something similar. In his book Psychology of the Unconscious, he spoke about how young psychologists should go about learning their craft. What he says—making allowance for his old fashioned male-centered language—applies to writers as well:
Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.
Ernest Hemingway seems at times to agree, then at others, to disagree. For instance, in a Paris Review interview, the incomparable George Plimpton asked Hemingway, “What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?”
Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.
Now that’s a stringent version of “write what you know”! On the other hand, at the end of the same interview, Hemingway said,
From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive . . .
The invention of “a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive”—that’s what matters, not what I already know. Like many of Hemingway’s pithy statements, though, there is a time bomb hidden in those little words, “. . . and all those [things] you cannot know . . .” How do you take things you cannot know and “make something through your invention”? Hemingway won’t say. Plimpton asked him how he had developed this style. He said, “That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write.”
Bret Anthony Johnson wrote a provocative piece for The Atlantic’s 2011 Fiction Issue titled “Don’t Write What You Know.” It’s well worth taking the time to read—if you’re interested in the topic, which if you’ve gotten this far in my post, you probably are! His point, though, to sum it up, is contained in this fairly long quote:
Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.
To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.
What do I think? I think the same thing that all these writers think: The real-world facts don’t count as much as how closely I have observed and attended to them. It’s out of that close attention that my imagination can bring fire to the fuel of the factual. Mary Oliver used to write about this (you can read my blog article about this if you’d like).
This may well be a principle about spiritual living: To attend to one’s life, to one’s experience, to one’s internal and behavioral movements, is the heart of the spiritual life. Thomas Merton wrote,
We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves. We are the world. In the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation in which we are only small parts. Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us.
And Thomas Merton should know.