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.

How to write the next literary novel

A fellow writer asked me what it would take to write the next literary novel. I searched through my notes, gathered after wondering for many years in literary wastelands, and came up with these Ten Commandments (caveat emptor: I take no responsibility for the success or failure of your novel):

1) Do away with plot. Plots are superfluous and distract from the language.

2) Create metaphors within metaphors within metaphors…

3) Deliberately obfuscate the flow of the narrative. Forget about beginnings, middles, and ends. Start at the end and go to the beginning. Or better yet, start in the middle and go both ways, testing your reader who wouldn’t know if you are coming or going.

4) Throw in all the literary styles you can think of: dialogue, poetry, screenplay, Q & A, parallel scenes, songs, flashback, flash forward, oh, and bit of straight narrative so that the reader still believes that she is reading a book. Write at least one chapter as one long stream•of•consciousness sentence. Write from about five first•person points of view (of preferably the same scene) and let the reader figure out who is who. Worried this book may be unclassifiable? Who gives a damn? The literary novel makes its own rules. Show them how clever you are.

5) Create characters that are not just larger than life but physically grotesque. Their character flaws and physical defects must yawn larger than the Grand Canyon.

6) Make sure that everyone is sexually repressed but don’t have them express their sexuality—the imagination is better.

7) Invent new words. Go for sound not meaning. And you don’t need a glossary at the end of your book to explain them—if the reader doesn’t get it, too bad! He will put it down to art.

8) Write at least 1000 pages. After the publisher’s cuts, it should not be less than 500 pages. A heavy tome is always authoritative. Also the reader will never finish it, so it will remain a mountain to be conquered, a masterpiece to be returned to time and again, in frustration.

9) Don’t publicize the book. Just make sure it has some scandal attached to it (charges of nihilism, sedition or sexual deviancy would work).

10) Print a limited run of 100 copies, give them away free to people who are looking for a hook or platform to further their own literary careers, then sit back or get on with your regular writing and watch your book become the stuff of legend. Better yet, say it’s out of print and have readers scramble to get their hands on a copy.

In the end, if the reader does not understand your novel, he will put it down to the superior intellect of the writer and your work will be hailed as a classic, only to be read in small doses by scholars.

All the best with your masterpiece!