Don’t Write What You Do Know, Write What You Don’t Know

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today.
Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today. This illustration was first published in Treasure Island.

You might say that writing memoir is like pirating your own life.

Quotation From Toni Morrison

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”  by Toni Morrison

Good-bye To The Memoir

Everyone seems to start out writing memoir,  and perhaps…….the unfortunate ones get successful at it. Look at Jack Kerouac. His second novel On the Road was a smash hit. It even got him on national TV……but at age 47, Jack was dead, victim of severe alcohol abuse. Jack London didn’t fare much better after his series of successful fiction and non-fiction titles. I’m sure everyone has read the short story, To Build a Fire, but how many know that he died at a young age of 40 from a complication of various medical problems including alcoholism.

Now it’s also very possible that having the name of Jack may have lead to the early demise of these successful authors, but no matter how you feel about this premise, I still think that evolution beyond the first person narrative is a good thing for a writer. Just by looking at the lives of famous authors, you might postulate that writing the truth can be a difficult thing to outlive.

Recent picture of Toni Morrison
Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Say Hello To an Octogenarian Novelist and College Professor

Her name is Toni Morrison and she teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. She is also a Nobel Prize (1993 for Literature) recipient and her 11th novel, called God Help the Child, is due to be released this month and is probably already on the bookstands. (Sorry I haven’t been to a bookstore lately, so I can’t verify this.) In a recent interview with her old editor and collaborator, Alan Rinzler, Toni delves into how it is important for young writers to get away from the old concept of “write what you know” and venture into the brave new world of “write what you don’t know”. This may be an invaluable piece of advice for writers regardless of age or experience level.

Maybe It’s Better To Fib A Little

So, what’s the moral of the story here. Well, it goes like this. If you fib a little bit, then you might live longer. It’s kinda like eating hard candy and drinking red wine. That is when done in moderation these things, which are supposed to be bad for you actually relieve some of your stress, thus leading to a longer life.

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant
A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

This surreal painting is simply called Giant. It was done by the master illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth. Just in case you’ve never heard of Newell Convers Wyeth he is the first generation of that famous American triad, which also features Andrew and Jamie. If you ever get a chance to see this painting in person, go do it. You won’t regret it, for this is an impressive, large oil painting that will most likely completely take over any space where it is exhibited.

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The Storyteller’s Art (according to Jack London)

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell......In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum
Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell……In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

To Build a Fire

In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902, then released in 1908 with a slightly different plot
To Build a Fire was first published in 1902.

More London

But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.

The Road

One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)

The Storyteller’s Art

From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.

More Words of Wisdom

Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia
Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia