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.