The Bane of the Personal


One of the worst pieces of advice a writer can ever receive is the age-old adage, “Write what you know.”

Frequently uttered as an exhortation to help a young writer make her work more “interesting” and “real” to her writing teacher or workshop colleagues, this MFA chestnut has, in my opinion, been more successful in debilitating scores of writers than it has in actually helping them.

Why?  Because it suggests that “real writing” must be based in something that is already known and, therefore, safe to the reader—not in something new, interesting, or potentially annoying that accidentally emanates forth from the writer.

Indeed, it suggests that the writer, to be successful, must not create something new but, rather, re-create something old from within the narcissistic aperture of his own self—which is, of course, limited by time, place, means, talent, lack of discipline, and bad DNA.

So, rather than getting the “go ahead” to keep writing about a grueling, but entirely imaginary, escape attempt from an old Soviet prison with an East European hottie who wears boobylicious turtlenecks, the writer is more often encouraged—usually by another writer of middling talent who has yet to sell more than 500 copies of his own indie press book—to plumb his “real” roots in Iowa and reflect upon a particularly poignant moment where his mother fed him a piece of apple pie that flashed him back to a time when his estranged stepsister got whipped for stealing pie by their father (who is, incidentally, lying dead in a field somewhere in Texas right this very minute).

And while I have no doubt that apple pie epiphanies like this happen all the time, I am not at all certain that I ever need to read another one.

In fact, I am quite certain that I could die very happily never having to read another Oprahified tale of the modern dysfunctional family. I mean, we all grew up scarred for life and lacking the love we really needed to be successful.  Get the fuck over it.

In all honesty, I’d rather read deliciously fictionalized accounts of pederasts like Humbert Humbert, king killers like Macbeth, or over-caffeinated chicks with razors for nails who help artificially intelligent entities discover that they are the “stuff” of the universe (1).  And I’m pretty sure none of those writers were writing from what they knew.   At least, I sure as hell hope they weren’t . . .

Really, it makes me shudder to think what the history of literature would have looked like if Bill Shakespeare, MFA, had been writing instead of that lecherous old ass working the curtain at the Avon Theatre.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,
what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
–Joan Didion

You see, I think the real problem with this type of apple pie advice to “write what you know” is that it turns the writing process—which used to be viewed as a creative art form—into a claustrophobic kind of navel-gazing where the only avenues of innovation left for writers are greater and greater levels of intra-familial perversion or personal narcissism.  That is, it turns creation—an open-ended, exogenous process—into masturbation—an endogenous, closed loop.

And the subtle effect this has across the course of a writer’s lifetime can be soul-killing.  Rather than allowing the writer to tap into that free-flowing, wide universe outside herself, this advice forces her to mine just the limited stretch of her own psyche—often a small, stinky sort of place (2).  And this keeps the writing hobbled or constrained because, in effect, it keeps the writer feeding on herself while, simultaneously, realizing she is pulling from a limited stock of material and having no where else to turn for “inspiration.”

So, while this chestnut might be seem like good advice to give to the young junior who repeatedly turns in orgiastic poems of delight where nymph-like women come, repeatedly, in lustrous waves of ecstasy but never once fart, run out of lube, or get their hair caught in the handcuffs, it can actually create a lot more damage for the writer of talent who, at age 42, has stopped imbibing near-lethal quantities of Almaden Mountain Burgundy from the box and sucking face with other suicidal English majors the night before the big poetry unit is due, but who is still repeating it verbatim in her head every time she sits down to write.
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(1) If you don’t know these, I am going to smack you!  Lolita, Macbeth (duh!), and Neuromancer.

(2) Yes, I am totally contradicting my earlier post espousing that you listen to your Inner Hippie and suggesting that she derives her great power by taking up residence in your same psyche and digging up all kinds of interesting shit.  But, as anyone well-versed in Freud ought to know, the most interesting part of the psyche has always been the Unconscious—a place of massive contradiction.  So, in short, get over it.

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