I recently read two books: The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Storiesby Steven Millhauser. They could not be more different in theme, style, setting, or characterization–but they are equally powerful and thought-provoking.
Here is another blog post I wrote for Ploughshares years ago, which is still a hot topic that writers debate about. I’m currently working on a new novel set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area, about three women at crossroads in life. There’s a lot I don’t know about these women, yet I feel I’m growing with them and learning about them every day. One of them just made a decision that surprised me. This morning I found myself awake around 5am thinking about it.
I once overheard a discussion between two MFA students. I was at a café in Palo Alto–near Stanford–and they were sitting at a nearby table.
One said the best writing advice he’d gotten was to “write what you know.” He said that having lived through the events and known the people and locations would allow one to write with authority and credibility. He used the examples of writing by Hemingway and V.S. Naipaul to back his claim.
The other disagreed, embracing “write what you don’t know” as the ultimate writing rule, because, he said, “That’s how you can let your imagination fly, let your subconscious and unconscious take charge.” The examples he gave were the more imaginative works of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t have an MFA, but I assume this kind of debate happens frequently in those classrooms.
I don’t see these two rules as contradictory. The difference between ‘what you know’ or ‘what you don’t know’ shouldn’t be about specific plot, setting or characters; it should be about understanding life and the human condition. In that sense, if you write ‘what you don’t know,’ your writing will likely be false and evasive.
The power of The Things We Carried has a lot to do with the author’s first-hand experience and knowledge of the Vietnam War, but has even more to do with his profound grasp of the human heart and emotions: love, longing, fear, grief, terror, sympathy, compassion, etc.
Dangerous Laughter is allegorical, surreal, and labyrinthine–like a strange dream where you cannot see anyone’s face clearly. But the book’s fantastic element is firmly rooted in reality, in Millhauser’s acute observation of history and human civilization.
When Raymond Carver talked about his own writing with the French journalist Claude Grimal, he said, “Yes, there’s a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination.” I believe his ‘imagination’ doesn’t equate to ‘what you don’t know,’ but to mean to transcend the constraints of the writer’s own life, helped by deep comprehension of human emotions and behaviors.
(Feature image: I saw this flower outside Prison Street Pizza, Lahaina, HI.)