Write What You Know…or Know Not?

I have tended to follow the “Write What You Know,” principle and am now wondering whether that mantra accrues diminishing returns over time. Recently, I finished writing another novel. Four of my novels have been published to date, while the other four sit in limbo waiting to get into the public spotlight. I have also written dozens of short stories, many of which have been published, including two collections of short fiction under my name. And I thought I would be beyond postpartum depression by now, when it came to writing and seeing one’s work in print. I was wrong. With the completion of this eighth yet-to-be-published novel—my shortest one yet, as I am aiming for brevity—that familiar feeling of release, mixed with loss and doubt, returned.

The first question I asked myself was: Who would benefit from reading this book? Who would care? And if no one cared, why do I continue to go around in circles crafting this stuff, picking incidents from my life, either experienced or witnessed because I am supposed to write only about what I know, when I could be doing some other good for humanity and for myself? Or do I detest humanity so much that I would rather hangout with my fictional characters whom I can bend to my will? And now that I have said goodbye to my imaginary friends at the end of this new book, am I left vulnerable and exposed again? Can I return to the fictional world, or is that gate managed by some power beyond myself, and do I need to experience and observe more of life before I am allowed in again? Who calls the timing of my re-entry? Is there a re-entry after this latest foray?

The rational side of me says, “Don’t worry, this is just the beginning of another adventure. There will be beta readers to go through, editors, re-writes, the publishing cycle, and the post-publishing marketing circus of launches, readings, interviews, reviews, book fairs and social media. Writing the book is only the beginning.” But I’ve heard this all before and gone through the “adventure” a number of times. All this “other stuff” is work that runs according to a template. The creation bit was the most important, the entry into a tunnel you never knew when or where you would exit from, and with what gifts of story accumulating in your manuscript. Creation was the true adventure, everything else was fluff.

“Write what you know,” can be stultifying, for how many personal life experiences are worth writing about, especially in a way that others would find entertaining, educational and uplifting? Some writers like Knausgaard, Kerouac and Burroughs have gotten away with it, but they either had unique lives that only they could write about, or boring ones that after a single reading need never be duplicated by any other writer. On the other hand, writing about other lives is supposed to wring hollow and is not taken seriously. And yet after writing about one’s own life from countless angles, if we don’t venture into other lives and other periods, repetition will set in. Is that why genres like historical fiction and fantasy are so popular with readers, while being financially rewarding and liberating for the writer?

I have arrived at that point, I think, where I have written all the stories from my life that I care to write about. Now, I’m at the jumping-off point into the great beyond of other lives and epochs, where the writing will, hopefully, continue for another indefinite period. I’m sure most writers have been here once; some have crossed the bridge successfully, while others have stayed in their comfort zone writing their way into irrelevance.

The Writer’s Ego

I once met a writer of some eminence who proclaimed quite openly that he didn’t have an ego. In a fit of shock I challenged him and almost laughed in his face. On reflection, perhaps my ego had gotten the better of me. But, a writer without an ego? Why, it sounded like a car without an engine!

This engine, ego, call it what you may, is what drives us to sit in quiet places, away from the rest of the world, trying to make sense of humanity, trying to form messages for humanity that will live on long after we are gone. This ego gives us the belief (misguided or otherwise) that we have the answers to life, or at least that we can frame the questions that need to be answered, that we can paint the picture of the flawed human condition, forcing our fellow humans to take action, because we cannot, for we are only showers not doers.

This ego is what keeps going when feebler souls give up and take easier pursuits like watching TV or reading the books that they found too difficult to write, or just going with the flow and not ruffling any feathers. This ego endures rejection because it knows no other way but to go forward, even when thrown a knockout punch. It reminds me of an ant colony patiently building their hill; when disturbed they scatter for awhile, but then regroup and continue their work. They know of no other way, nor does the writer.

This ego can go into furies when thwarted or crossed. Many are the writers’ feuds we have witnessed in public over the ages: Le Carré vs. Rushdie, Dickens vs. Andersen, Byron vs. Keats, the list goes on. We could call these writers pompous bores but they are merely heeding the dictates of their egos, driving them to call the shots, to shape public opinion and mold the world according to their vision at the expense of everyone else. How dare they be contradicted without there being consequences?

The Buddist mantra says that we should abandon the ego. I think that writers would have a hard time working, especially writing fiction, in this ego-less universe. Jack Kerouac and J.D Salinger are classified as Buddhist writers and yet their writing is embroiled in conflicts surrounding the human condition. It would appear that the journey from ego to selflessness and the conflicts inherent therein make for better fiction than fiction solely grounded in the present and encased in selflessness. I’m also sure that many writers will not agree with me on these points, but that is all the better, for my ego does not necessarily have to agree with theirs.

I have therefore concluded that I am glad for having an ego, and for its power to propel me forward, often into unknown zones where I start to see connections and form beliefs that convert into ideas and stories that could be communicated to the rest of the world. To lose ego would be to lost this gift. After all, if God gave us an ego, it would be for the purpose that we use it, not amputate it like an appendix or a tonsil, unless it has turned toxic.

So the next time I meet my eminent writer friend, I am going to ask him whether the fact that he proclaims he has no ego is a sign that he indeed has one, and a very powerful one at that.

The Aging Male Writer and his Vanishing Audience

This is a controversial subject. Let me make that clear at the outset. And I apologize in advance if I come across as that typecast “male, chauvinist p—”; that is certainly not my intention. But as I am one among this soon•to•be•extinct species, I thought I would get my thoughts on paper before the opportunity lapses.

Once upon a time, the majority of writers were men. Profligate and prodigious, they wrote on topics of adventure, war, espionage, crime, love and even ventured into poetry and literary fiction. This breed of writer was objectified as the epitome of the writing life. They made fortunes and squandered them. Women fell for their charms and got burned, but this only added to the writers’ mystique. And many of them died young, garnering permanent places in literary history. We still read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, and Miller. After WWII, the stereotypical male writer became a bit more disciplined, businesslike: Updike, Bellow, Irving and Roth come to mind, although a few renegades of the older gang still hovered, like Kerouac and Bolano. Why I picked these particular writers is because their subject matter was intended primarily for a male audience; their protagonists were men, often guys who had been shaped by two world wars, in search of their place in a changing world. Readers loved this stuff. These authors wrote for their “Me generation.” But their protagonists eventually started to age as the writers themselves got older, along with their male audiences.

And now the tide has definitely turned. Numerous surveys indicate that the majority of readers today are women. To the neutral observer and book lover, this is welcome relief because as male readers diminish, or get taken hostage by the Twitterverse or take up golf, the emergence of the new majority assures us of a continuing book reading public. As another aging male writer, Ian McEwan, wrote in The Guardian newspaper: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

The encroachment on the old boy’s writing club continues with pressure from readers and interest groups to publish more female authors and to include more female writers’ work in anthologies, magazines, literary awards and other bastions of recognition (and accompanying financial reward) where male writers held sway in the past. Again, an understandable shift as tastes and audiences change.

So where does that leave our aging male writer and his vanishing audience? Will he have to create female protagonists? Would male characters have to exhibit more of their dormant feminine sides in order to appeal to readers? Out with machismo and in with sensitivity? A tough job for an author who learned his chops in another camp; he will be like an immigrant trying to get a job in a new country, only it was once his country. Does he have to write under a female pseudonym, which I’m told happens regularly in the romance fiction genre? After all, George Eliot and one J.K. Rowling did it in reverse quite successfully.

Tempting options, all of them. But another side of me says that making this seismic level of a disguise will be a contrivance and will be untrue to the philosophy of the aging male writer. At the end of the day, it’s back to the essentials: (a) the quality of writing, and (b) having a message to say that resonates with the times—let the audience fall where it will. And if the aging male writer has to head off into extinction as a consequence, at least he will be contributing his spoor to the trail of evolution for future generations to study and appreciate.

I told you this was a difficult subject. Do I have any friends left, of either sex?