What Do You Know?

Aside from “show, don’t tell,” the most overused writing maxim is arguably, “write what you know.” As a former student of creative nonfiction, I took this advice quite literally. In fiction, however, those words can get a little tricky. I know fiction writers who worry that “writing what they know” might be considered cheating in some way. As if using characters, situations, or settings from one’s own life makes the act of “creating” somehow illegitimate. To them I say, pshaw! Some of the greatest novels of all-time came from authors who were just writing about aspects of their own lives. Salinger’s Upper West Side, Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, Didion’s California… and on and on and on. 

I got to thinking about all of this while reading Twelve by wunderkind Nick McDonell. Since it is a scientific impossibility to mention this book without mentioning that he was seventeen when he wrote it, I must say that this then-child took the oldest rule in the book and turned it into brilliance (granted, I’m only halfway through). Of course, it helps that “what he knows” is the privileged, unsupervised world of rich Upper East Side teens, just as it must have helped Salinger, Fitzgerald, and basically everyone else to use this maxim to their advantages that their worlds were far more glamorous, interesting, or devastating than our own.

Most authors aren’t so transparent in their abilities to capture their own experiences. The most otherworldly of science fiction novels are often rooted in truth, or at least truth as the author sees it. Fears stemming from real-life events such as wars abroad or government influence at home are usually the influence of good sci-fi, and fantasies can be as simple as an exaggeration of the real world (the main difference being that in these parallel universes one or more of the characters possess magical abilities).

In “realistic” fiction, authors have the option of using their own lives overtly. But I think, more often, what they know is revealed more subtly. It can be the basis for a setting (Denis Lehane’s Boston) or at the heart of an experience (Raymond Carver’s gin-soaked problems of middle-class America) or be purely emotional (dare I mention A Million Little Pieces without sparking a fiction vs. memoir debate?).

What are the ways you use your own experiences in your fiction? Or, for nonfiction writers, do you ever find yourselves editing your lives in order to keep certain “things you know” for yourselves? That used to be a concern of mine when I wrote personal essays. Now that I’m entertaining the idea of fiction, I’m thinking about it even more because fiction is… for lack of a better word… frightening. I don’t know how anyone does it without incorporating at least a portion of his or her own life.

Further, what are some of your favorite author-inspired novels (as I’ll call them, I guess)?

5 thoughts on “What Do You Know?

  1. Whether I'm creating a completely imaginary scene or transplanting an event from my life into a novel, I feel like I'm creating something. Either way, you're articulating some experience as truthfully and as artfully as you can. I believe ever author draws from his or her own life no matter what he/she's writing. Some are more subtle than others about it, but it's unavoidable. There will at least be some reference, or some character, or even just a sentiment that parallels something in your own life.

    To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of this. Scout is essentially Harper Lee as a child, just as her friend Dill is a young version of Truman Capote.


  2. “Buffalo Lockjaw” by Greg Ames is a great example of this concept. it might as well be an autobiography; the line where fiction kicks in is intangible from start to end. i think that makes for a more honest experience though. it will never feel like the author is bullshitting you if he's not.


  3. His new novel is called “An Expensive Education,” which I'm excited to read, and according to Amazon, he managed to write another one in between called “The Third Brother.”


  4. I just had to say I read Twelve years ago and absolutely loved it. The opening paragraph was particularly memorable. Has he ever followed that up? The only other teenage I could think of with that much talent was S.E. Hinton.


  5. I'm okay with the line between fiction and (creative) non-fiction being a bit blurred. I'm happy as long as an engaging, fun and memorable story is being told.


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