Write What You…

The Hoary Old Chestnut

I was a little surprised to see in a recent edition of The New York Times that two writers, Zoë Heller and Mohsin Hamid, were debating the old “Write What You Know” question. It has many gray hairs, that one… I don’t know if the two writers chose that question, or whether it was assigned to them. This piece of advice – “write what you know” – that is famously used in creative writing programs does have one advantage: it gets people thinking. It worked that way for Heller and Hamid, and it will for us too.

Both writers quickly focused in on the verb “to know.” What does it mean to know something, and what is that thing, and what does knowing (or not knowing) have to do with writing, which is a quest for knowledge, both public and intimate. Neither of these folks responded with my take on the old phrase, which is “Write What You Want to Know,” but they weren’t far from it.

Heller talked about the fact that knowing doesn’t necessarily mean knowing oneself. Most of all, knowing includes empathy, imagination, research – everything we use to investigate that which is outside us. I’m with her one hundred percent. In my novel The Speaking Cure, I did everything possible to know what it was like to be a clinical psychologist working with war trauma cases in Belgrade, during the Yugoslavian civil wars. Apparently I was successful; when the book came out in France, where no one knows me, people thought I was Serbian (though no Serb is named David).

In that case, my acquisition of knowledge involved a new nation. With my upcoming novel The Fledglings, the knowledge involves a different era: the 1920s and 1930s. Not so difficult, really. The harder part is acquiring a new gender, since I am writing about two “fledglings,” two young women (“girls” they were called at the time) starting out in life. We’ll see what readers say about that feat.

In her piece, Zoë Heller pointed to the gap between experiential knowledge – what you lived through – and fiction – what you are writing or did write about. Just because you experienced something doesn’t mean you’re in any position to write about that event. By pointing this out, Heller was implicitly attacking the experiential fallacy that many young people believe in: you need life experience in order to write. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t give you the keys to the kingdom either. I remember talking to Mordecai Richler years ago, and the conversation got around to what I did before I started writing fiction. I had the typical American education: I worked in a meat-cutting house, for public works fixing broken sewer infrastructure, for a cartage company delivering freight… He looked at me and shook his head. “That’s my problem,” he lamented. “All I ever did in life was write.”

He didn’t go in search of “life experience.” It came to him, as we know from reading Charles Foran’s mammoth biography. And he certainly could write about it.

Heller also wisely points out the self-censorship issue. Many of us, when writing about our experience, don’t let ourselves journey to the heart of the matter. Self-censorship or maturity: perhaps we’re just not ready to go there.

In the Times piece, Mohsin Hamid brought up the inevitable science fiction argument. Mr. Hamid has apparently never traveled through different spatial dimensions, yet he reserves the right to address himself to such things. And he sends us one last sly arrow before signing off. We ourselves are being written, he reminds us, even as we are writing.

Not altogether sure what he means – but I agree.

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