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How do you write what you know when what you know is writing?

November 22, 2008 |  2:16 pm


If, during English class, you tried to hand in a story about zombies -- or fairies, or the trauma of war -- you might well get a testy response: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. It's one of the oldest adages of writing.

Ernest Hemingway is a prime example: Injured in World War I, he fell in love with a nurse who was taking care of him. He later wrote "A Farewell to Arms," which, as you know, is about an injured soldier who falls in love with his nurse.

These days, the novelist's career path has been professionalized, and the field is competitive. To get coveted teaching positions at colleges and universities, many writers look to build a CV of achievement, entering contests and competitions, seeking fellowships, earning advanced degrees. None of this is bad, exactly, but it means that where once an author might have joined the army, like Hemingway, or spent a lot of time drinking Pernod and bedding another man's wife, like Henry Miller, now an aspiring author is advised to focus on writing and on climbing the career ladder.

Which is what J.R. Lennon ("The Light of Falling Stars") and his wife, Rhian Ellis ("After Life"), have been writing about at Ward Six, their excellent literary blog. Ellis begins:

A teacher of mine once said that if you want to have a lot of big adventures, go have big adventures. But if you want to write, stay home. I guess I've pretty much internalized that advice, at least the staying home part. There is another school of thought, though, that says if your life is boring, your writing will be, too.

Which is true?... I sometimes feel like my range is too narrow, and maybe it's because I never lived in China or dropped out of aeronautics school or had an affair with Spiro Agnew or sold gold futures in Dubai.

These questions arose while she was working on a personal essay -- which, of course, is supposed to connect to one's life experience. I think surviving the winters of upstate New York, where they live, is pretty adventurous, but I guess it's not highflying Dubai finance. Lennon follows up with a skeptical post about the essay form, adding this:

[I]n my case, I just don't think I've had the life experience to make it interesting. Oh, my life has been plenty interesting to me. But, as I might have suggested in the comments of the last thread, it's been a life of sitting around making stuff up in my head.

I have to say, I found Lennon's "The Light of Falling Stars" quite beautiful, so I guess sitting around and making stuff up in his head works for him.

But in general, I think aspiring writers should be wary of building their lives around the career of being a writer to the exclusion of everything else. Because when what you know is writing and only writing, you'll eventually end up crafting stories about writers. Which is, yes, boring.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Andrew Y. via Flickr