Known Unknowns #9: The Known Knowns

This quarter’s sessions of writers’ workshops just started, and a woman last week had a good problem. The piece she’d brought in for class #1 was an essay about the time her husband was in the hospital for liver failure. She’d spent weeks and months by his bedside, first waiting for recovery from emergency surgery, then while he was awaiting a new liver. They’d spent the last couple of years moving between three cities, all to take advantage of the best doctors for each part of her husband’s treatment and recovery. So her problem was this: She (let’s call her Student A) brought this piece in so she’d have something to send around and discuss in the first class; but now Student A never wanted to talk about livers and hospitals ever again. At the same time, the last years’ experiences were all she seemed to know anymore.

My response to her: Use it. It sounds ghoulish, I know. Lorrie Moore wrote a story about this very thing, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” a story I hated as a younger, dumber man, but which I’ve come to appreciate more every year. (Her very finest story is still “Dance In America,” and nothing will ever convince me otherwise.) In “People Like That” (subtitled: “Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”), a mother finds a blood clot in her baby’s diaper, the first in a chain of horrors for this child. During the wait in the hospital, the father (identified only, tellingly, as The Husband) says, “Are you taking notes for this?” And later, telling her to write about the experience as non-fiction: “Get two dollars a word.” He’s not kidding. The story also happens to be based in fact, and the last lines of the story, which I won’t spoil here, are a kick in the teeth for both reader and (I believe) writer.

I didn’t tell my student to write more about livers and hospitals. What I told her was to remember what it felt like during that time. The boredom, the exhaustion, the resentment — it’s all there in that essay of hers, in between the horrifying medical stuff, and it’s every bit as important. I was fascinated by the fact that while she and her husband were stationed at a hospital in Boston, she’d enrolled in a local yoga class. That says more to me about this person than knowing she was sitting by her husband’s bedside all those days. A lot of people would do that. Not everyone would have the wherewithal to realize: a) we’re probably going to be here for a while; b) I have to take care of my own body, not to mention keep a routine; c) I have to get out of here every now and then. These emotions and impulses and decisions are things she can apply to a million different situations and scenarios, and because she’s lived those feelings she’ll have a vocabulary for them that most people simply won’t possess. That’s why I told her to “use it.”

When people say or hear “write what you know,” I think they take it to mean: Write what you do, or have done. But this is bad advice, and limiting, and it’s why you only ever need to read one Charles Bukowski book. I usually amend it to “write what you know to be true.” Which is corny and sounds like something out of a horrible movie about writers, but it gets across my intent.

Can you imagine if we only wrote about what we’d done? Just because you’d only ever worked in a supermarket wouldn’t mean you’d need to write only about grocery stores your whole life. I mean, you should write about them, if you can make it an interesting story. But more than that, think of what you possess from having worked at a grocery store: it’s a pretty amazing glimpse of humanity. Because the departments in a supermarket are so narrowly defined, like a cluster of tribes united only under the banner of the greater territory, you’ve experienced groupthink and pack dynamics and pressure and competition and pettiness. You know what it feels like to be ignored by society. (When’s the last time you talked to the dude stocking cans in aisle 3?) You’ve seen all manner of relationship dynamics among the customers, you’ve seen economic panic, you’ve seen class distinction (“Mom, should we get the regular Cheerios or the store brand?” “Ugh, are you kidding? Regular. What do you think we are?!”), you’ve seen people arming themselves to destroy their bodies, you’ve seen attempts to reconstitute ruined bodies, and if you’ve worked there long enough, you’ve probably seen someone vomit on the floor. Now which of these concepts is peculiar only to a supermarket setting again?

This inner stuff is what makes fiction so important to us as humans. The best writers are able to speak to the most difficult, weirdest emotions in the shared human experience. Do you think Homer sailed all over the known world and encountered Cyclopes and sirens and all manner of terrible situations? No. But he knew, I’ll bet, loneliness and want and temptation and a hunger, however unrequited, for adventure. Those are the things that resonate to us from the Odyssey, well beyond all the monsters and the fighting. They are universal. We’ve all felt them in some form, so while the emotions and desires that drove Homer or Dickens or Emily Bronte to write what they wrote were undoubtedly personal in some way, this also made their work speak to people hundreds, even thousands of years beyond their time.

“Hey Jude” is a song written by one particular famous guy to one particular famous baby. But we all love it because in its particularity it manages to express something that each of us can take and make personal for ourselves — the hopes and wishes and cautions we might have for a kid in our own lives. This is what we mean by universal, which unfortunately gets confused a lot with generic. There are a lot of shitty romantic comedies, for instance, that assume we’ll all be on board with the harried, bitchy woman and the slovenly, antiauthoritarian guy, because it’s assumed that we’ll all want them to change each other and get together in the end. And we do, but mostly out of habit and the ancient expectations of storytelling. This is a primal, mechanical response. We respond much more strongly and emotionally, I think, to, say, the subplot in Bridesmaids, where Kristin Wiig’s character worries about all her female friends abandoning her. We’re not all depressed, unemployed bakers, and we’re not all women, but we all know the fear of disappearing friendships, and we all know the feeling that life is passing us by. (Jesus Christ, do we ever.) By making its innards 10% more complex and specific than those of an average rom-com, Bridesmaids sticks with us after we’ve seen it. Or it was the part about the shitting.

When I advised Student A on using her life experience, I had to tell her about Student B. Student B had come to workshop with what she called an “autobiographical novel,” but which was really memoir. It was in first person, and only the names were changed. Moreover, it soon became clear that the main character was kinda flat and restrained, even saintly, and the narrative was stalling pretty early in the story. When we talked about this, we discovered that this was because she was telling it all exactly like it happened. The sequence of events around one devastating incident in her life (years earlier, a boyfriend had died of an overdose) were still dictating everything in this fictional story. So we got down to work.

We changed her narrative from a first-person to a third-person, to help divorce her from the story and help make the lead a real, independent character with her own wants and agendas and (very important) pettiness. We messed with the timeline of the boyfriend character’s death, expanding certain real-life events, compounding some, and inventing plenty of others. And we refocused the main character’s story on her endeavors in the local indie music scene. This last thing is what completely opened up the story, and I can claim very little credit for it. This writer had a lot of emotions swirling around her boyfriend (obviously), her time in the city where they’d lived, and missed opportunities with music. When she agreed to try the narrative in third-person, she suddenly had permission to tell a story — one using the elements of her life, certainly; but more importantly, a full narrative, imbued nonetheless with all the things she’d felt and experienced. In the very first version of her story, it was clear it was written from life, and it suffered for it. Reading her later versions, I have no idea what actually happened and what didn’t. Only the author does, and in fiction, this is as it should be.

In the end, as a reader, I don’t care if something actually happened to the author. I care much more that the author is able to connect me to her characters, to the point where I miss them when I’m not reading them. As a writer, how that’s done is by using any trick you have, no matter how personal or sordid, to help make that connection. It’s akin, I think, to how an actor makes himself cry over and over again for a scene. Afterwards, you may feel cheaper for it, but then it’s not for you anymore anyway.

UPDATE: Please watch this very serious 3-minute video about writer’s block and writing what you know, as suggested by my pal Sarah Chauncey.

5 Responses to “Known Unknowns #9: The Known Knowns”

  1. Jason Permatteo says:

    I really enjoyed this, a total rethink for me on writing what I know, thank you!

  2. D. says:

    So glad I stumbled upon this tonight, Matt. It’s great. I bet you make an excellent workshop leader. Keep on, fella.

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks, Jason! Glad you liked it!

  4. Matt says:

    Thank you, D! I’m glad you stumbled upon it tonight, too! I do have a lot of fun doing workshops.

  5. Eric says:

    Robert Olen Butler has some interesting thoughts on the relative toxicity of one’s “literal memory,” which, I think, encompasses this idea of the “write what you know” saw.

    Often what sticks out so painfully in fiction is a detail, scene, or character perfectly recalled from the writer’s life. When all else is dreamed and fabricated from the unconscious, immutable facts become dreadful things.

    All workshop attendees at some point in time will encounter the writer who defends their work with, “but this really happened.” In fact, most writers will pass through this stage along the way to good work– flaring up to lay claim on what one knows in order to preserve the integrity of the work.

    It falls away. Unless it doesn’t. In which case, you don’t really have a chance.

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