April 24, 2012

Write What You Know...Kinda

This past weekend I took part in both the Bethesda Literary Festival and the Annapolis Book Festival. At the latter I got to take part in two panels. One was on "The Politics of Food" (super-interesting, and nice to draw on the science/policy research I did for DKTBG) and one that asked "Can Creative Writing Be Taught?"


This is invariably a rhetorical question when five writers who teach weigh in (the event was hosted by the Writer's Center). There was still enjoyable variety in what we had to say. I particularly loved hearing from Ron Capps, who works with veterans who are often coming to the table without even -wanting- to write. But at one point the old saw of "Write what you know" came up, and because of time constraints I didn't speak up to complicate that advice. I regret not doing that, so I'll do it here. 


Write what you know, yes.
But know things beyond your own navel. 


Too often we use "write what you know" to justify solipsism, an indulgence of the "I,"a family story or personal narrative offered without context in the larger world. 


When I sit down to write, it is often in the key of loneliness. So I could write about what's right in front of my face: a failing relationship, a 14-hour drive, a warm scotch on a cold night. All things I know. But I am also lucky enough to live near the National Zoo, where I take weekly walks to clear my head as I ruminate on these things. There I visit with platypi, capybaras, peacocks--creatures whose habits and personalities I perceive in a visceral way that is then expanded by a few hours of research into their genetic lineage, their anatomy, their role in human history. In sitting down to write a somewhat confessional poem, yes, I'm writing what I know. But in sitting down to write an ode to peacocks--which you will find in your May issue of Poetry, such a huge thrill--I am also writing "what I know." 


My point is, what you know extends far beyond internal monologue. Write about the history of a Shenandoah National Park trail, not just a fight you had with your boyfriend as you hiked it. Write about how to make a perfect pie crust, or how to dock a sailboat with one knot. Write about fights your parents had over money when you were a kid, but look up what the actual state of the economy was at the time--how much did a loaf of bread cost? a house? what was the living wage?--and include that too. 


I'm not preaching from on high; I struggle with this. As a memoirist, part of me wanted to curl up in the safe zone of my own story, which couldn't be easily contradicted. But I knew my book had to look to the larger realms of science, cultural analysis, and public policy, even at the risk of getting something wrong or entering an argument. I wrote a chapter on peanut allergies although I'm not allergic to peanuts. I interviewed allergic women my age who decided to become mothers because, though I have not, that is an important part of the story.  And I think (I hope) it's a better book for all that. 


Tomorrow I head up to New York for back-to-back readings in Brooklyn: the paperback launch for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl at BookCourt on Wednesday, April 25, and a reading with Yusef Komunyakaa and Thomas Sayers Ellis to celebrate the redesign of American Poet at the DUMBO powerHouse Arena on Thursday, April 26. Then I dash to make an afternoon flight on Friday out of BWI; from there on to the "Experience Poetry in Vicksburg" festival--a return to my beloved Mississippi!--on April 28 and a reading at SCAD's Atlanta campus on Tuesday, May 1. Home just in time for a Vienna memoir conference on May 3. I might just barely break even on all this. Oh: and then we throw a reading/extravaganza/birthday thingie on May 5. You should come.


In another news, my sister is awesome. She is truly a friend to the sea turtle, both the fleshy and beanbag variety. And she'll be bartending at Cinco de Sandra.

9 comments:

Khara House said...

I love the idea of "[knowing] things beyond your own navel." Recently I have been trying to experiment with writing beyond my own "I," and have found that poems tend to be much more interesting when I do. Thank you for this fine advice!

Bonnee Crawford said...

"Know things beyond your own navel", I like it :) Thank you for sharing :)

Shann Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shann Palmer said...

I'd like to use the quote at the James River Writing Show tomorrow night, if I may (with proper credit).

I'm moderating the poetry panel.

Tatiana said...

This is probably the most thoughtful and nuanced response to writing what you know that I've ever seen. Thank you!

swissmiss said...

Yes, thank you for this reminder that as writers we must also always be readers and researchers. I love that seeing the peacocks made you go research the peacocks - to know them.

JLC said...

Nice essay on one of the biggest areas of confusion among beginners. Poets and fiction writers have to learn to look beyond their navels right off the bat! If one can learn to see, one can learn to draw, and to write. Thanks for the reminder.

Nichole L. Reber said...

Was just wondering if I was getting too far out of the memoir by writing what I know. That is, life abroad is the subject overall of my memoir-in-progress. Currently I live in Peru and am writing in detail about its arts and crafts. But something in my heart kept saying, isn't this part of your life abroad, and isn't cultural learning what will bring readers to your memoir? The answers, I believe so far, are yes.
Thanks for helping to expand on the "write what you know" adage.
@NicholeLReber
http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com

SolariC said...

In my poetic experience, writing what I know becomes satisfying only when I connect personal experience with something broader. 'Looking at one's navel' is too limiting, but drawing the parallels between very individual experience and some grander image or idea is what makes poetry great, in my opinion.