Writing What You Know

norman-crane-fairy-of-teeth I read a forum post by an Indian-American author writing a young adult novel who was asking for ways of making “waiting until marriage” seem like a believable choice for three contemporary non-Indian American sisters. The author was adamant that the sisters should not be Indian. Their choice could not be cultural. After all, she was writing for the average American reader, and books about Indian-Americans were a niche, right? The average reader wouldn’t pick one up. Or, if she did pick it up, she’d read the first paragraph, see one of the characters’ names and put the book down. She wanted to read about Molly, not Moksha. That got me thinking about my own writing. Very little is about what I know. I’m currently writing about goblins and vikings, and I’m neither green-skinned nor Nordic. I’m Canadian. However, there is one thing I wrote, a novella called Fairy of Teeth, that is set in Canada and does touch on things I know, such as growing up in a multicultural country and hockey. I wonder if that makes the story more authentic or, like the Indian-American author feared, sticks it in a niche. As a reader, sometimes I enjoy detailed depictions of life by other people in other places (vs. life in a generic place), but at other times the effect is total alienation. The result is so exotic or specific that I stop trying to decode the details and decide the author is writing for himself rather than for me. I put the book down. I’m not alone. In response to the Indian-American author’s forum post, someone replied that she won’t read any book with a Christian character in it. I understand that to mean an explicitly Christian character. Presumably, there are others who won’t read about explicit Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, transsexuals, women, communists, conservatives, et al. So we are back at write what you know, but what if what you know is what others know they don’t want? That’s when you start writing about what you know but pass it off as what everyone knows. You write about three sisters “waiting until marriage” and give them a non-cultural reason. You fake it. You name them Molly, Samantha and Pat and hope you get as many readers as possible. Write what you know but only after dressing it up in a disguise. Or just don’t care. That’s an option, too. Blandness doesn’t have a taste, but it leaves that non-taste in your mouth, like a watery beer. Perhaps I should drink more beer when I write and write drunk, because writing what you know is, for me, an exercise in convincing myself that I’m not boring. It’s an act of self-confidence. Alcohol inflates our self-confidence. More generally, growing up in a multicultural country and a connected world is wonderful, but it does tend to shine so many lights on you at once that your own light gets dimmed. What I know is boring because I’m the one who knows it. Who else, with access to so many cultures and ideas and experiences, would ever be interested in mine? And yet people are. The book I put down; maybe I’ll pick it up again. The generic book I finished; I don’t remember anything about it. Someone won, someone lost. A MacGuffin was gained and a Foozle killed. And if people are bored, perhaps it’s not because of the details, or Canada, or hockey. Perhaps they’re bored because the story’s no good and the characters are transparent. If I write what I don’t know and nobody likes it, I’ve got a ready-made excuse. If I write what I know and nobody likes it, I’ve got a problem with craft. And isn’t that what every author ultimately fears: not that they don’t like you because you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim,¬†but that they don’t like you because you’re a bad writer.

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