I’ve been grappling with the “Write what you know” adage again. Earlier this month, about midway through the third week of classes, I made a list in my journal of “Things I have learned in grad school so far.” At the top of that list is this little note to myself:
Keep your interests and passions alive…Not everything you experience has to be fuel for your creative fire. In fact, it is probably best if that’s not the case. I am all for going out and experiencing life and drawing from your well of memories to inform your creative work. But keep a little of your self for yourself.
I know that the old saying of “Write what you know” is largely a matter of being able to convey truth in fiction. “Write what you know” means using your knowledge to inform a story, making it more believable to the reader, and doesn’t necessarily mean that you must write solely based on lived experience.
But the idea still persists that writers, to some degree, must use their lives and their memories to fuel their creative works. Pushing this idea, though, can quickly become problematic.
I think of this tweet thread from the poet Chen Chen:
When I read this tweet thread, I couldn’t hit the retweet button fast enough. And I feel that this idea may work in reverse: Not only is there the presumption that minorities have more trauma to write about, but when they do write about trauma, they must be writing from personal experience.
Do my experiences (some of which, yes, aren’t all sunshine and daisies) inform the stories I write? Yes. My stories are often built up around something I’ve done that I then twist, change, and alter until I’m not writing about a memory but something completely new. Still, I sometimes worry that, although I am writing fiction, readers may try to “decode” the story by retracing my steps to find the original sliver of my reality that served as the starting point, and then take it one step too far to try and decode me. While I don’t strictly believe in the “death of the author” mode of performing literary criticism, I don’t particularly enjoy the idea of people trying to pass judgement on my life through the medium of the stories I tell. That’s unfair, I think, to all stories that writers write.
I’ve deviated a little from the first lesson I’ve learned in grad school: Keep the passion for things outside of writing alive. I worry, sometimes, that the idea of creative burnout isn’t taken seriously enough. Not only are writers overworked, with the constant hustle of the publishing game and all of the necessary tasks that pile up in order to make a living as a writer. But there’s an expectation that writers, and all creative types, must perform some kind of self-immolation in order to be a “real” artist. Everything about us is fair game for the works we produce. But we can’t complain about how heavily this weighs on us, because artists have the “luxury” of pursuing passion rather than pragmatism.
Don’t buy into it. Keep a little of your self for yourself.
What do you think? Is everything in a writer’s life fair game? How do you find the balance between your writing life and your personal life, if such a balance exists?
This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.
9 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Keep a little of your self for yourself”
I tend to think that anything in my life can become a resource for writing, but I also believe that some things should be done for their own merits, and that not everything I do needs to have a writing based justification for it. So I would say everything in my life is fair game, but often it’s happy luck, rather than intentional.
I also have recently been reflecting on the threat of burnout, particularly how writing represents a very long term investment. Any story we create, no matter how strong, won’t prompt any public praise or rewards for some time (perhaps a year or more after we complete our revisions and start sending it out). Granted, when those responses do come, it can be very rewarding, but oftentimes I feel there’s a very real need for more immediate validation, and I also believe there’s a strong need for activities that can offer validation that has no connection with writing, which may be what you were getting at.
In any case, thank you for sharing. I hope you have some rewarding hobbies waiting for you.
Interesting post. Having recently suffered from burnout I agree that hobbies outside writing are important. I’ve started to make more time for things I used to love doing: drawing and TV and gaming, and it’s made writing easier 🙂
Very thought-provoking! I especially like your insights about how “there’s an expectation that writers, and all creative types, must perform some kind of self-immolation in order to be a ‘real’ artist.” In my MFA program, that was very pronounced among the creative nonfiction folks (who were very self-aware of it, by the way, sometimes joking the memoirists are constantly competing in the suffering olympics).
As a fiction writer, I’ve always gravitated toward “write what you don’t know.” I mean, I’ve never wanted my fiction to be thinly veiled nonfiction. I’ve wanted to stretch myself to invent and imagine. Given, your writing often comes back to your experiences and perceptions. But you can (and should) stretch your perceptions for the sake of your fiction. Writing is empathy exercise. This article from Bret Anthony Johnston is great: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/08/dont-write-what-you-know/308576/. Among his various gems of wisdom is this: “Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete.”
I don’t hold back. My emotional reactions don’t always match up with what my players are going through. I’ve felt loss on many different levels but it doesn’t mean I write about my personal experience. It means when one of my players is grieving, I can tap into my own memories of loss and use it openly and honestly.
Anna from elements of emaginette
I have come to believe that the adage “write what you know” refers to emotions not experiences. Who solves murders? Lived centuries ago? Just doesn’t happen. But my emotions, passions can fuel my characters in those events. Failure and struggle are central in my stories, as is never giving up.
Agree with many of the comments here.
Whoa, very deep. I love this discussion, and I had never heard of the “death to the writer” mode of literary criticism, so I googled it, and thanks for introducing me to that. I am consciously always wondering (judging) an author’s intentions with a work. I don’t think it’s something I’d be able to shut off if I wanted to. But I do that kind of analyzing in every aspect of my life. Motivations intrigue me. This said, I see where you’re coming from, and kind of wish that I didn’t analyze everything the way I do, and also kind of wish others wouldn’t judge my writing in the same way I do theirs. 😛
I agree. I don’t owe my writing anything I want to keep for myself. The ‘write what you know’ and ‘suffering’ is all relative. I’m writing a mystery cozy set in the 80’s. Yet I’ve never come across a dead body or solved a murder in my life. And any suffering I may or may not have encountered? Nobody’s business. I’ll never write a memoir. Chen’s tweets are really insightful. This Suffering Olympics being used to determine who has a “right” to be heard is just pseudo-intellectualism.
Thought-provoking … Chen’s tweets are definitely insightful given some Twitter trolling I’ve recently had the misfortune of witnessing.
I never really thought of mining my own experiences for my stories. I mine the reactions to them so my characters’ reactions Are more realistic, but The dark parts of my life don’t seem to fit into my stories. Of course, this could be because I write fantasy rather than contemporary, but one could argue the themes could be the same (an absent parents, for example).
That being said, I definitely believe in keeping some of yourself for yourself. As a writer, I can’t help but write parts of myself into the story… there are aspects of me in all my characters, no matter how hard I try to keep them out. However, it seems that feeling obligated to have experiences for the purpose of fueling stories would drain the joy from both the experience and the story.