Writing Who I Am

Good morning, threes of fans!

As you read this, The Man and I are road tripping around Idaho.

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Right now, we’re visiting my parents and sister and brother-in-law down in the southern part of the state. People don’t realize how freaking huge Idaho is. It’s almost a full day’s drive from our house to where they all live, across one time zone, and in a completely different climate. It’s beautiful down here, but much dryer than up where we are near Couer d’Alene.

In any case, I may have to torture you all next week with tales of this road trip. We are going to make a real effort to get this camper out and through many of the Western states this year, so stay tuned for more travelogues.

I wanted to ruminate a little this week on something of a philosophy of writing based on a stray thought I had several years ago… Back then, I posted more of my stray thoughts on social media, so for whatever reason, I felt compelled to share it on Facebook. Here it is:

When this post popped up in my memories, the hamster in my head got super excited and started turning that wheel of hers like crazy, which generated some new thoughts and a fair bit of smoke. Now that the smoke has cleared, I thought I’d share a few of the thoughts.

Write What You Know?

Show of hands: how many of you have heard the advice “write what you know”?

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That’s what I thought.

Originally attributed to Mark Twain, this advice is so common that I daresay even my non-writer friends have heard it.

I did a quick search to see what other writers think about this advice, and I was not disappointed to see many, many blogs, essays, and articles pushing back against this idea at least a little bit. Some pieces suggest that it’s good advice as long as we don’t take it too literally and maybe do a little research to learn what we need to know. Others suggest that maybe Mr. Twain meant something more like writing the human condition–the things that we’ve experienced, like loss, love, pain, vengeance, joy, etc.

I really like Ursula Le Guin’s take on the advice the best, I think:

As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”

I think it’s fairly safe to say that there is a wide range of opinion on Mr. Twain’s advice.

Why It Doesn’t Work For Me

Aside from some brief forays into teen romance when I was myself a teen, I have always written fantasy. It would have been ludicrous to suggest that an unathletic girl raised in rural Oregon who attended a high school of about 250 students in the mid- to late-1980s would have vast experience with swords, dragons, magic, royalty, class warfare, blacksmithing, and roadside inns. My experience into such things was entirely gleaned from the books and movies that ignited my imagination.

And to be entirely honest, my attempts at teen romance were abysmal. I didn’t have a particularly robust dating life in high school. I had a few dates and then one boyfriend for most of high school, and that boyfriend lived in another city. Even though I fit the demographic of teen romance novels, I didn’t exactly have much experience with such things. Most of my angsty teen writing grew out of reading Sweet Valley High.

“Write what you know” just doesn’t work for me as an all-encompassing piece of writing advice. For one thing, I write things I don’t know all the time for clients. In my freelance commercial work, I have to research ideas, technologies, theories, and all manner of things to enable me to write content for my clients.

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But let’s stipulate that “write what you know” can accommodate my experiential shortcomings. We can say that I can research Medieval history and culture to come up with fantasy settings, thereby “allowing” me to write those stories. Or we can say that it’s okay for me to write about the death of someone close to me, even though my experience with such things has been minimal, because I have some experience with grief and loss. We can even say that it’s okay for me to make up some kind of magic or an interaction with mythical creatures because although these things don’t exist, I’ve had weird, eerie experiences or encountered new-to-me animals and can extrapolate how those things might look in other settings.

I still don’t think “write what you know” really gets at the way I approach writing.

So let’s move on from this advice and consider my proposed alternative: write who you are.

Write Who You Are

Let’s stipulate that there are many ways to interpret “write what you know,” and that a lot of it has to do with writing things that you research or writing human emotion based on your own unique experience.

I still think there’s an element of writing that has more to do with who you are than how well you can research something or string words together.

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Part of this gets at voice, I think. Writers who practice their craft eventually develop that kind of indefinable quality that makes their work recognizable–that thing that makes a mature writer stand apart from others. I can read something by Neil Gaiman or Ann Patchett or Kazuo Ishiguro or Khaled Hosseini or Willa Cather and have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get, because those writers have certain qualities in their work that I’ve come to expect.

This is why sometimes, it’s so hard to read something by an old favorite that really disappoints. Last year, I dove into The Unconsoled, by Ishiguro, and I was so frustrated and bored by the book that I barely made it through. I went into it expecting another Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World, and that was not even remotely what I got. I struggled, and even though the quality of the writing was exactly what I expected, the story felt so disjointed and muddy that I could barely make it through.

But this is why I think voice is only a piece of what I mean by “write who you are.” I do think that The Unconsoled felt like Ishiguro’s work–it was just so very different from his other work that I struggled to read it. And yet–it was entirely Ishiguro.

Because Kazuo Ishiguro writes who he is.

Let The Beautiful Stuff Out

Ray Bradbury once said “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

I think this is what I mean by “write who you are.”

When I write, I am tipping myself toward the keyboard and letting a little bit of my heart and soul out. Every word that I write, every paragraph, every story contains who I am–this Jesus-y, middle-aged, GenX wife, mom, grandma who basically wears t-shirts and jeans and fuzzy slippers every day and is occasionally given to flights of fancy about swords and magic.

And within that weirdo, there’s a lot of other stuff–grief, yes, and love, and joy, and beauty, and ugliness. Anger. Pain, frustration, regret. Fun, sometimes, and bad puns and obscure movie references and a lot of incorrect 80s song lyrics.

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So while you might never hear an obscure movie reference fall out of Connor Mac Niall’s mouth, that doesn’t mean it didn’t inform his dialogue or character in some way–as did a million other things that have gone into making me the person I am today.

I think that part of getting older is becoming comfortable in your own skin–learning to just relax into who you are and bringing that whole self to everything you do. I think that’s what people mean when they talk about authenticity. I mean, you can be authentically a jerk, too, but that won’t win any friends (although it may make you a good writer, I suppose).

For me, writing who I am means bringing my whole self into this endeavor–pouring a little bit of myself into everything I write, even if I have to research the details first.

I hope that all made sense. If not, blame the overcaffeinated (or undercaffeinated?) hamster in my head.

See you all next week!

 

 

 

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