Writing What You Know

This post is not going to be about the new HBO show Girls because that’s the last thing this world needs. But I suppose I should it some credit for today’s post because it relates to what I’ve been thinking about, writing-wise, lately. “Write What You Know” is a maxim taken straight out of Writing 101, but I think it’s been getting abused.

I’ve long been an advocate of writing what you know, and I’ve written about it before (way back in 2009) when I discussed a young writer, Nick McDonell, who wrote his acclaimed novel Twelve when he was seventeen. Like Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, McDonell is from a privileged New York upbringing and used his limited worldview to his advantage (he’s now 28 and has three published novels with protagonists that aged along with him). The similarities between McDonell and Dunham end there, and I actually feel guilty even putting them in the same sentence.

What Nick did that Lena doesn’t is that he drew from what he knew rather than recreated it. In Dunham’s 2010 movie Tiny Furniture, she writes about a college graduate who moves back in with her mother, an artist (like her real-life mother), and deals with being a post-Gen X twenty-something. Girls is not much different. The situations she and her friends get into are very specific to being an educated twenty-something in post-recession America who consciously ignore the huge safety net beneath them.

Some will relate to this, others won’t. For me, it was beside the point. What it came down to was “was I interested in this story?” and the answer was no. Then (always relating back to writing), I said to myself, “this is why I’m not excited about New Adult.”

I’ve spoken about New Adult before and why I don’t think it’s marketable yet. Even so, I still get queries for it, even if they don’t label it that. Many college and just-graduated writers send me “literary fiction” that seem remarkably similar to their bios. Write What You Know is what they were taught in all of their creative writing classes, so this is no surprise. What bothers me about what writing programs have been churning out is that they don’t seem to be showing the writers how to use what they know and still create an interesting story.

When you don’t have much life experience, writing what you know should be what you write. It’s a great starting off point. But the trend I’m seeing with young writers is a literal interpretation. If every aspect of your storytelling is a mirror of your personal experience, you risk alienating readers who don’t have your exact background.

I get a lot of submissions for literary fiction from young writers who compare their work to The Graduate, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and Bright Lights Big City, and then when I request them I quickly realize that they are lacking in one major area: a standalone story arc that could be enjoyed by a larger audience. Writers should use what they know to enhance their stories, not diminish them.

Take The Graduate. An older woman seduces a younger man. What if that man was 33 instead of 23? We would have had a very different experience watching it. What makes The Graduate such a funny, poignant story is the fact that Ben is younger than “young.” He’s internally struggling with all of these New Adult things when – bam! – a plot line hits him.

I suppose it’s ironic that YA has had more time to mature than New Adult, and – after a rocky start – has found a way to make itself relevant in the marketplace. The reason why it was able to become relevant, I think, goes back to Write What You Know. No matter how authentic the voice, YA comes with an adult perspective. While there are exceptions, most YA is written by adults. They use what they know about growing up to capture the essence of being a teen without getting consumed by it, allowing for non-teen readers to appreciate the actual story.

New Adult, however, remains exclusive. Their stories tend to ask “doesn’t it suck being 22?” or “isn’t it great being 22?” and leaves outside readers saying, “yes, but what is your point?” There’s also a theme – not just in my submissions, but in various “Gen Y” pop culture I’m seeing – of the main character being self-aware of his or her role as a twenty-something. The writers usually seem pleased with themselves for being so astute. Gen X set the precedent for “the listless twenty-something,” and now Gen Y is using it to wink at their audience and roll their eyes at themselves. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. But – and this is important – 

Being self-aware is not the same as having perspective.

For the same reason the best memoirs aren’t about events that happened a month ago, knowing you’re in a certain situation and being able to objectively assess that situation are two different things. That’s why instead of getting the next Bret Easton Ellis, we’re getting people who reference the fact they’ve read Bret Easton Ellis and hope their audience reads between the lines. 

Self-awareness vs. perspective is a distinction that many young writers are failing to grasp, at least from what I’ve seen in my submission pile. It’s also, I believe, why many Gen Y writers take Write What You Know so literally. They don’t yet realize what they’re writing isn’t universal. This doesn’t make them wrong or shallow or bad writers (on the contrary, I’ve turned down far too many talented writers solely because their stories weren’t developed enough). It just means they need more distance from the thing they are writing about in order to get their point across.

(Note: I realize I am generalizing a bit, so let me reiterate that there are very talented young writers who do get it right. And trust me, when they do get it right, it is brilliant and often leaves me seething with jealousy.)

I know I’ve picked a little too much on young people in this post, but that’s only because of the types of submissions I’ve been getting lately (and, ya know, Girls didn’t exactly disprove my theory). But “real” adults – you are guilty of this too. When you draw on what you know about falling in love, getting divorced, burying a parent, or having your character “find themselves” on some journey, be careful that you don’t cast yourself in their role unless you’ve gained the necessary perspective about it. Understand that your audience might look and think and act differently than you, so don’t expect your personal story to translate the way you want it to without the appropriate context. Like all good writing, it’s not always about making your reader like, relate to, or even understand your character all the time. But you do need to make them care.

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)?