Tuesday, November 16, 2010

writing what you know

“One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one's own flesh in the inkpot, each time one dips one's pen.”  ~ Leo Tolstoy

“How can I write about what I know and have it be interesting?” This is one of the toughest questions for writers to tackle, especially for younger writers or those who feel they do not have experiences interesting enough to use as writing material. The following article attempts to answer this question, and uses concrete examples that I think may be very helpful to you in your own writing. The author, David Carver, is another Patrick Henry College alumnus who has kindly contributed an article to this blog. As always, please share any thoughts or ideas that come to mind!

Unfortunately, I seem to have mislaid the title of this piece. I’m not quite sure how I managed it, but I did. Oh well. :-/ Here it is!

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By David Carver
One of the toughest questions with which a young, educated, affluent, untraveled person has to struggle is the following: How can I write about what I know and have it be interesting? It is on its face difficult to answer satisfactorily. Without age, one doesn’t have an older person’s knapsack of experience to rifle for the odd story idea. Without travel, one can feel that he or she hasn’t met enough people, and enough kinds of people, to write a story with connecting, inspiring power across cultures, as recent works by Marquez, Soyinka, Milosz, and Endo might suggest. And affluence has been a source of guilt (not only creative) for no small time in the West. The average American college student, in most cases, feels that the only way to generate interest, based on personal knowledge, is to plumb the most intemperate and morbid of their feelings or to pluck experience out of thin air by conjuring fantastic, impossible worlds a la J. R. R. Tolkein.

Neither of these, I think, address the heart of the problem. The rut seems deep, but it is after all and on reflection a shallow one. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, all we need is the hand of Help to get us out of our artistic quagmire. We must always remind ourselves, no matter how quotidian our routine may seem to us, that as human beings we have in our own hearts and minds access to an unending storehouse of insight, emotion, reflection, intuition, and empathy. When we really sit, quiet ourselves, and contemplate, we find that our vision is much like the description of Heaven in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: “Further up and further in.” Virginia Woolf, for example, used to take time to consider how she thought, why she thought of certain things instead of others, what words her mind used, and so on. This is not a complicated exercise, but it can be meticulous. It requires the desire, and the decision, to use one’s single mind toward the project, without extraneous distraction. So watching television or listening to music while writing may help you understand television or music better, but it will drown out the sound of your own mind. As Plato said, gnosthe seauton: know thyself. That is most important.

In the second place, you must know other people. Our relativistic climate has led us to think that our knowledge of other people falters if we only know, say, similarly cultured friends and family. To really know people we should have to have met the stoic Zulu, the honorable Japanese, the garrulous Venician, etc. When you muse on this it really dismisses the importance of any people other than those unlike yourself. In that sense it is above all an invitation to leave off the first, crucial task of knowing your own temperament and inclination, which is powerfully done by seeing it played out by people near you. In addition, this places interest in the category of the fantastic; like the European Romantics, it looks to the mysterious and the alien as appropriate material for really new and captivating work. However the greatest pieces of literature claim our attention because they speak to that which is most simple, yet most significant. The thunder that bellows “through the vast and boundless deep” only holds us past the point of terror and wonder when we see the character whom it has pursued, an angel who “witnessed huge affliction and dismay / Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.”

Have you attended a family reunion recently? Think of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” a little story about a snowy get-together in Dublin. There is no overpowering marvel in that story, no ruthless angst, but there is on the contrary only (but a very tough only!) a series of personal observations about generations, memory, love, loss, and expectation. Joyce’s characters aren’t anything noteworthy to start with: two aunts, a few servants, the nephew, the nephew’s friend, the nephew’s wife, various acquaintances, a special guest. Where Joyce excels is his portraiture of these people. The aunts, for instance, fuss about, the one more staid, the other more jocund, each organizing and guiding the evening in her own way. Joyce invites us to see, here, what kind of person this is. What is she doing? Let’s take a look - now she’s at the piano emptying some pistachios into a bowl of milk glass. Here she is dispersing a possible row between the Irish nationalist and the more cosmopolitan scholar.

I’ve forgotten whether, in the story, the aunts actually put nuts into a bowl. But the story has told me what kind of people these women are. They have entered my mind as, really, characters, discreet personalities, a colorful species of humanity. (On that note I recommend Theophrastus’ Characters as a piece for young writers to imitate.) You do not need to have met globetrotters or madmen, or be one yourself, to uncover the most compelling and rich sort of material. When you treat only the people of extreme characteristics as interesting, the whole world becomes a little dimmer, paler, less worthwhile. That attitude also stifles your ability to make even the phenomenal players stand out. I recently saw a YouTube clip criticizing the new Star Wars movies for their complete lack of interesting characters. This was demonstrated by posing the following challenge: as the following names are mentioned, describe the character without referring to appearance or plot events - only use their qualities. The dramatis personae of the original Star Wars yielded a multitudinous assessment; that of the new movies, a few strained, searching words.

The point is: in writing, we may perhaps initially respond to a narrative full of all that’s weird and unprecedented, but once the thrill wears off we will only stick with it to find out the fate of people we have come to care about, for good or ill. It’s unnecessary that every character have the moral fortitude of Christian. Some may even be as destitute of virtue as Don Juan. But it is essential that they have humanity, and not some manufactured “interest,” but a smack of the real, an aura of people as they are. Don’t worry about drafting the depths or ascending to Heaven; don’t feel that you need to remake the world or make a novel one outright. Relax and observe. If you don’t have the opportunity to see a lot of people, that may work in your favor! You can more closely educate yourself on the foibles, quirks, excellences, and depravities of a few well-known figures. And never forget to, when appropriate, look at yourself in the world - how are you carrying yourself? Why? What thoughts run through your mind? You need not engage yourself as narrowly and psychologically as Virginia Woolf; nevertheless your self-interest should be, while not selfish, as keen as possible.

Finally, fatally, you need to care. Some writers, such as Joseph Conrad describes himself in the preface to Nostromo, feel they have exhausted the capabilities of their reflecting soul. He had the right to doubt, having already produced Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. Too often young writers imagine they are in that same boat, while, truth be told, they are covering for a very adolescent laziness. If you are framing your need to write solely in terms of creating material, getting something on the page, doing it right, you’ll flounder in the shallows. (You should, of course, discipline yourself to write every day.) Rather, your goal must be to create material for - for your own enjoyment, for others, for God, etc. With that in mind you will be more likely to take seriously the people around you and the setting in which you live, and more importantly, you will respond better to criticism, recognizing that its last effect is not to tear you down but to refine the textual thing to which you invite an audience. And in fact, in this mood you will often find yourself having “more experiences,” a misnomer for experiencing more what is already before your eyes.

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