Saturday, May 7, 2011

On Writing What You Know, or Not

One of those powerful dicta that newbie writers receive many times is, "Write what you know."  It certainly worked for Flannery O'Connor and Thomas Hardy to sink body and soul into the places that ran in their bone marrow, to use the accents and verbiage of their homebodies, to ignore the rest of the universe.  Each of them sought the commonality of humanity in the specifics of their own villages and towns, farms and roads, libraries, ramshackle cars or carriages, and tired feet.  But is that the only way you can write anything worthwhile?  What about Blind?  Who has experienced what it would be like for everyone to become blind at a stroke?  Yet it's a profound novel, well worth reading, with great insights into human behavior and emotions.  I've thought a lot about this advice, and I think it can inhibit creativity. Its virtue is that you are likely to know the important details of places you've lived and loved.  But it can prevent you from applying those details to new places and ideas.  And here's the real rub.  You can tell yourself you know a place and its people, but the insides of their heads could be much different than you imagine.  So unless you talk about the world according to your own thoughts, there is no real way to write only what you know.  And if you talk with any philosophers, even your own thoughts will have fading reality.  So, I'd say this.  Keep in mind rooting what you write in the physicality of the universe you're describing.  But let your imagination go free in placing your writing in Stonehenge, on Mars, or in a time and place of your richest desires.  And enjoy yourself in that world.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One special detail is all you need

Something I have become more and more aware of is the way authors I enjoy use the special detail that conveys the whole picture.  Someone from my MFA program, for example, described an old Irishman as having eyebrows like hamsters.  Picture that!  You don't need any more details, do you?  I certainly didn't.  And this master detail that conveys it all shows in full bloom in stories by Chekhov.

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, decribed how Chekhov broke all the rules for short story writing but said she can't put his short stories down.  I started reading these stories, and I completely agree.  And I think that his use of the one detail is part of the reason the stories work so well.  Of course, Chekhov had other methods as well, including providing a slice of life instead of a nice neat ending.  But the telling detail is so well chosen in Chekhov stories that I often just stop and marvel about how much you can read out of a single detail.  If you haven't tried to describe things with ultimate economy like this, it takes a lot of thought.  You can't just remove all the details but one and have it convey it all.  That special detail has to bring the whole scene into focus, has to be the detail that implies the rest.  You may have to think about what it could be for a few days before you find it.  But it is very worthwhile.  People may read your story and say things like " Such economy of description!"  The underlying secret is not just economy, but worth per word!