Write What You Don’t Know.

Teachers and professors tell young writers, “Write what you know.” And there’s a certain truth to that idea. If I try to write about a cricket match, but I don’t know anything about the game, have never played it, have never watched it, don’t know the rules, and am not sure I can name 5 countries where the sport is played, I’m not going to write an excellent scene that includes the sport.

In the same way, being a high school teacher and having a teenager myself, I recognize when “young adult” authors clearly don’t know much about teenagers and are too far removed from the personal experience to do the subject justice. Their “teenagers” – for example – never swear or only think & act in culturally competent ways.

So writing what you know is a good piece of advice. Or maybe it’s not…

Recently, an editor told me that I couldn’t have a Latino narrator in one of my stories because I wasn’t “Mexican enough.” That’s a strange thing to say in any context, but especially odd since my grandmother is Mexican and I do speak and read Spanish. But apparently – in that editor’s eyes – this piece of fiction was an example of me trying to write what I didn’t know.

I recognize that politically correct mores have permeated everything in our culture – and I’m sure that this particular editor is simply a politically correct conservative – but her command (her imperative?) made me think of the idea on a larger scale.

Should Margaret Atwood not have written the science fiction novel within The Blind Assassin?

Should Cormac McCarthy not have written John Grady’s Mexican prison scenes simply because McCarthy had never been incarcerated?

Should Toni Morrison not have any Caucasian characters or narrators in any of her novels or stories?

Again, I could go on and on.

And where would this idea stop? What would be its limit? Why would we allow for this type of censorship of creative possibilities?

So – to keep this piece short – I’d say that instead of the old “write what you know” adage, I’d say it’s fine (and good) to write what you don’t know as long as you’re willing to learn about it.

With encyclopedias, empathy, books, neighbors, friends, coffee shops, Youtube, relatives, films, traveling, and curiosity as basic starting points, what can we not learn? What can we not write about?


New Piece On Censorship – Huffington Post

I’m writing for The Huffington Post again (after a three year break). Here’s my new piece on censorship:

“Should We Censor What Teens Read?”

What Makes Good Writing

I went to my friend Ingrid’s desk in the English department the other day. I said, “I need to show my students what adverbs do in a paragraph.”

“What?” she said.

I said, “I need to show how adverbs weaken the verbs.”

I started looking through some of the novels she uses in her American Lit. class. The Great Gatsby. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Then I read the opening to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and found what I wanted.  “No adverbs,” I said.

Ingrid said, “Oh, okay.”

“She’s a good writer,” I said.

“Is that all it takes,” Ingrid said, “no adverbs?”

That made me think.  What does it take to be a good writer?  I thought through a few of the writing rules I try to follow:

– Write stark images. No cliches. Ever. Especially when writing similes.

– Write more verbs.

– Don’t use an adverb unless I have to. In the same way, minimize adjectives.

– Try to never write that a character is “thinking,” “considering,” or “wondering” anything.

– Describe without using abstractions like “glory,” “ugly,” “holy,” phenomenal,” “wicked,” or “good.” Use concrete items to show instead.  Show, don’t tell.

– Activate the five senses to evoke. Write to the body, a reader’s emotions, not the head.

– Write dialogue as the character would speak, not how I would speak and certainly not how I wish somebody else would speak.

– Action should be real and necessary to character development or plot arc.

– Structure matters and should enhance the book. No structure gimmicks.

– Plants and animals and locations have to be researched and portrayed accurately.

– Central conflicts should be epic, not mundane (all first-world problems make books silly – don’t write about a missing cell-phone charger, for example, or getting the wrong drink at a Starbucks coffee shop)

Those are just a few of the rules that I think about as I write.

But to be good, to write well, I have to read great books.  I like the image of Andre Dubus III reading poetry for fifteen minutes each day before sitting down to write in a walled in, naked room in his basement. No internet. No distractions. He also drinks black coffee as he reads the poems.

I like coffee and poetry as well. I also refuse to look on the internet as I write.

Reading list this last month:

Home by Toni Morrison

A Mercy (rereading) – Morrison

Multiple poetry collections by Tony Hoagland

Home Burial by Michael McGriff

The Book Of Men by Dorianne Laux

Ordinary Wolves (rereading) by Seth Kantner

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor

New stories and poems in Tin House.

New Huff Po Piece On My Summer Reading Program

Just published a piece with the Huffington Post today on my summer reading program.  My wife Jennie and I chose to read minor works by major writers, which really turned out to be the worst works by major writers.  It was an interesting learning experience for me as an emerging novelist.

Huff Po: Click.

On Not Being Good Enough – The Beginning Writer’s Life

This summer, I’m reading minor works by major authors.  So far, I’ve read:

1. Dust Tracks On the Road by Zora Neal Hurston (which was bad, really bad, awful, and exposed her as someone who shouldn’t try to be funny)

2. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway (not a good collection although a few stories are worth reading)

3. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor (incredible writing – she always writes well – although the story makes Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark seem sort of light and uplifting)

4. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (if this is Jane Austen’s worst, I feel sorry for the rest of the world’s writers – I loved this book and it’s brilliant dialogue)

And now, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, an intersting reading experience.  I know what Morrison is doing in this book.  I know her well enough that I can see what she was attempting.  I see why she wrote what I’ll call section one (for those of you who’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean) and why section one had to fail, had to confuse, had to die out and get boring for section two to work.  Morrison was going for great, not just good.  And after all her success – most importantly, this was after Song of Solomon – Morrison wanted something new and astounding.  She wanted to dazzle the writing community with her deepest work.  And she does get to another level with her use of perspective in this novel.  But…

Most readers won’t get there.  They’ll start to get bored with the tedious and trivial fighting between what are truly two boring married characters.  Morrison tries to write out of her comfort zone and it doesn’t work.  But I still admire her attempt.  And, honestly, I can’t write better even within what I understand.  Not yet.  What I want to do and what I’m capable of doing are not equal.  I want these great stories and these first novels that are eloquent and subtle and tragic, but I’m not there.  I need to do more work.  I need to write every day for ten mores years.  And then, after all that, if I do produce a great work, I still might fail after, might fail with my next work.  Like others have before.  Like the writers I’m reading this summer.  But failure is as important as success.

Book Recs For Northwest Book Lovers

Northwest Book Lovers asked me to be part of the “28 Authors, 28 Variations on a List” group.  One author each day, each author recommending five books (although I chose 7 since I  like the number 7 more than the number 5 – you know).

Here’s the link.

When Toni Morrison is Too Difficult For Me?

I have been reading Paradise, by Toni Morrison, all summer long.  Literally.

I’ve read six other books and most of two others while reading this book.

My “during Paradise” 8-book list:

Little Bee – Chris Cleave

Vertical World – Katie Brown

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Bossypants – Tina Fey

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – E.L. Konigsburg

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

It’s not that Morrison’s lyricism is too much – as many people say with Paradise.  It’s that the book is overpopulated.  I was first warned about overpopulating stories in my intro to fiction class in college, and thought about it a lot that year (Overpopulation is putting more people in the story than the reader can keep track of).

Some classics are overpopulated (including, for example, one of my favorite books, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair).  So perhaps Morrison has earned the right to overpopulate.  She’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But here’s my problem with the book.  Morrison overpopulates and loses the plot. Egregiously.

I’m sure she does this on purpose.  Morrison is precise and brilliant.  But it doesn’t work here. Or it doesn’t work for me.

I’m on page 263, and soon to finish my seventh and eighth books while reading Paradise (twenty pages in a sitting, like medicine, skip a few days, and twenty pages more).