Thanks Flannery O’Connor, Thanks Dad
All students of writing fiction are familiar with the dictum to “write what you know”; I have always regarded this advice with ambivalence. For some, it provides important license to draw from actual experience, suggesting, not inaccurately, that each of our lives is characterized by meaningful elements that could make for a compelling story. All to the good. However, the flip side to this advice is an implication that one ought to write only what one knows, to ignore or avoid uncharted territory accessible exclusively through the exercise of imagination, often in combination with research to make the imagined feel real. For me, then, a better precept for writing a work of fiction is this simple thought experiment: if I were browsing in a bookstore, what as-yet unwritten book would I wish to come upon to read? This simple ground rule, I believe, incorporates the most valid element of “writing what one knows” -- specifically, the natural impulse toward stories that reflect upon our own lives, whether or not we consciously understand why – without limiting imaginative possibilities My own work has been undertaken under these general guidelines. That is, I’ve begun new stories or novels simply because I wanted to create the precise reading that most interested me at any given time. This provides the act of writing (which consists, day after day, of being alone in a small room) with a sustaining tie to the boundlessness of reading, discovered wondrously as a child and no less powerful now as an adult. Write what one knows? Rather, write the book you’d like to read, which will never exist unless you write it. Simple enough.
Or, perhaps not so simple.
My books have been set in Paris in the ‘20’s, Chicago in the 30’s, Los Angeles in the ‘40’s, New York in the ‘50’s….nonetheless, these books, undertaken as acts of imagination rather than disguised memoir, have all, eventually, revealed themselves to me as autobiographical in sly, unplanned ways. This revelation usually comes about 2/3 through the first draft. This is not to say the books are ever overtly autobiographical. Rather, elements that comment on my own life or the lives of those I know deliver themselves in indirect ways. It turns out, then, that, despite my protestations, perhaps I write “what I know”, after all. Or, at least, what I come to know through the process of writing….
I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor, who said, “I write to discover what I know.”
For me, writing to discover what I know has never been more true than in my latest novel, the Edgar-nominated Woman with a Blue Pencil, which is set in Los Angeles during World War II and the Japanese-American relocation to internment camps, specifically revolving around a young man named Takumi Sato whose dream of publishing a mystery novel is compromised by world events. Such compromise eventually effects not only the young author’s work but also his concept of identity. According to the straightforward dictum, “write what you know”, I would be disqualified from writing this novel, being neither Japanese-American nor 96 years-old, as the character Sato would be today. Fortunately, I used my own bookstore ground rules, as outlined above, for beginning the book. However, about 2/3 of the way through the first draft, I realized that its essence revolved around a question that was unexpectedly personal to me: how to exist when you are “the wrong kind of man”. In the novel, this is characterized by political and racial discrimination. Some reviewers have linked the story to political and racial events in our country today. This, I had planned. What came as a surprise, however, was that the book’s heart had come from my heretofore unrecognized acknowledgement of my recently deceased father’s lifelong, painful, and mistaken sense of being “the wrong kind of man” himself. Thus, I could empathize with the pain, humiliation, anger, shame, and pathos of a young Japanese-American in the 1940’s because I had witnessed, as a child, my father’s heartbreaking sense of dislocation in his world, which had nothing to do with Japanese internment but everything to do with being fully human and generous of heart and yet still feeling like “the wrong kind of man”. Hence, I came to know my late father in a new way by writing about a 22 year-old Japanese-American named Takumi Sato and his fictional experiences between the years 1940-1944.
Write what you know or write to discover what you know?
I’m with Flannery on this one.