06 August 2008

The Big Striptease

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I'm redesigning my undergrad intro to poetry writing syllabus. I'm using this instead of my old standby, which is really expensive. The books don't end up being all that important, anyway, because I have my own ways of explaining things.

This has made me think about one of the most controversial pieces of writing advice that I've received, but not quite dispensed. The good old write what you know.

People gave me that advice when I was a beginning writer. I took it as an invitation to write a lot of bad stories and poems about mythologized versions of various ex-boyfriends. The advice didn't do much harm--and hey, now I write much better poems about mythologized versions of various ex-boyfriends, whole books, even--but I wonder how my writing would've been without the invitation to consider what you know first.

When I teach poetry I give prompts, so students will have to jump through a lot of hoops in the process of writing what they know, which ultimately makes the poems better (I think).

When I've taught fiction writing, it's been more problematic. At times I've wanted to impose a ban on stories about keggers, the dorm, pissy parents who won't help you fix your '87 Sunbird, the girlfriend who stayed at home while her Odysseus went away to State U. With a few exceptions, reading these stories is like watching students (who can't swim) wading into the quarry, not knowing about the 40 foot drop-off until they're submerged, and it's too late. There's such a rush to tell it like it happened that there's no room left for artistry, or discovery.

On the other hand, when writers take on big subjects without adequate research, or write knockoffs when they don't have the details (i.e. My Personal Jesus' Son), it can be equally disastrous.

So what are your thoughts about write what you know? Do you participate in it? Have you ever? Did it stunt your growth? Help you blossom? Do you advocate for a combination of writing beyond one's immediate experience and writing what you know? Do you think that using a persona, or research, is the key to a writer's salvation?

This applies to fiction writers, too, and you know who you are...

12 comments:

Kieran Nelson said...

Hi there, firstly, glad I found your blog! I'm a fellow poet - although much less experienced - from Scotland.

To what your general question at the end. I do mostly write of what I know, I find it much easier, basically, because it's what I know! I have however dabbled in larger subjects like politics, the world religion (I know!) and other things like that. However I do always make sure I have the voice in the back of my head telling me to be careful.

I think it is possible to write slightly outside your own experience, as long as your cautious and know your limits, otherwise you just end up looking stupid, and depending on your status, you may end up making some enemies.

Kieran
www.adventuresofaglasgowpoet.blogsport.com

cornshake said...

i heart Kim's book. students love it and any semester I *don't* teach from it, I am sorely disappointed...

Jay Robinson said...

I think you should write about what you know, but write about it in a way that suggests you don't. That way those mythologized versions of people are much more interesting than the real ones ever were, in some cases anyway.

Penultimatina said...

That way those mythologized versions of people are much more interesting than the real ones ever were, in some cases anyway.

I'm very glad you qualified that, Jay Robinson.

You know, some people are better in theory than in practice.

And others are full of golden light.

Valerie Loveland said...

A better version would be write (the interesting parts of)what you know.

M. Cherry said...

I think writing poetry is itself a way of knowing, in which the poet learns things that s/he wouldn't know without writing the poem.

So, a better rule is, "Write what you don't know yet; by the end of the poem, you might well know it."

Karen J. Weyant said...

I guess I would say that I do write about I know, but I spend a lot of time researching all the spots I don't know. My students also want to write about what they know, so I get to read a lot of poems about football and breakups. (Teen angst) Some of my friends have off limit topics when they teach, but instead, I try to find good examples of poems about subjects my students do like. That works a bit better.

myshkin2 said...

How about--write to discover what you know.

jeannine said...

I like "write what you're interested in." (Although write to discover what you know is pretty interesting too - after all, what do you really, really know intimately about the world and yourself?)
I get caught up in an idea - anime, comic book superheroes, folk tales, etc - and then do lots and lots of reading around those subjects in different genres (critical theory, non-fic, fiction, etc.)Then I write a bunch of poems over six months or a year. That's pretty much the process - get interested, get informed, write. Lather, rinse, repeat.

P. J. said...

Writing what I know leaves little to draw from, but I think I started by writing a lot of images, then on to what I know, then less and less what I know, until I defy what I know for what I know reasonably well. At least "what I know" sparked me to write; but in the long run I'd say it's just a steppingstone to other topics. In 1991 I wrote a poem about two dead groundhogs I found on some tracks in Bowling Green, and it was pretty awful (17 years later, I still go back to it and revise, just to see what happens), but it was good practice, familiarized me with image-making and theme, but I don't write much about railroad-kill anymore.

Radish King said...

Lie. All the time. It's way more fun.

Bob said...

Hey--I think you should try the other way around--write only what you don't know. The field is so large, how to narrow it?

It's important to send early writers to places they don't know--which sometimes means their own dreams. I am right now trying to create assignments that will subvert students' desire to write about their own lives. I'll let you know how that goes sometime.

Still, we're always who we are, and pretty much nothing can change that except for surgery. But if you think your own life is the most important subject, maybe you shouldn't use it up early on...

Bob