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?

Remember When High School Was The Best Four Years Of Your Life? Me Neither.

I was talking to my Contemporary Literature students yesterday, and saw how many of them are struggling, hating the high school experience, depressed or socially awkward, with serious family issues, drug addictions, dealing with parents who have drug addictions, eating disorders, no one is cool enough, friends steal friends’ boyfriends, talk about each other behind friends’ backs, basically people suffering through the teenage experiences.  Then I thought of this:

When I was fourteen, I put a loaded shotgun in my mouth.  Fingered the trigger.  Closed my eyes.

Then I took the gun out of my mouth and unloaded it.  Put it away.  And that was obviously a good decision.  But what followed were the worst three years of my life.  For me, high school was like being force-fed a five-course meal of rotten meat.  I kept wondering why we had to do this, and why everyone was acting like it was fine, like it was normal.

And this is not the way it is for all people.  For some people, high school is football games and home-coming and Valentines and prom.  For some it’s AP classes that lead straight to the Ivy League or at least a good state school.  And some of those people have functional family and friend relationships.  Good conversations and learning experiences.  So it’s not horrible for everyone.

But for some – and I see it in their eyes – this high school thing isn’t good.  1600 teenagers put together in a cement building for eight months. Trying to study my literature homework when there are so many more important things going on.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the narcissism involved in writing and publishing a memoir.  The “look at me” factor.  And how unkind it is to the others involved.  Even though (as one of my friends and brothers said) my parents are only in one-tenth of the book, I do detail their worst years.  And was that necessary?  I look in my parents eyes and think, “Maybe not.  Maybe I shouldn’t have published.”  I love my parents.  I’m so grateful for my childhood.  And I outed their worst moments.  Publically.

But the book does give me the freedom to be completely real with other people, with friends, with my students.  Now I’m able to bring up issues I never would have considered before.  I used to worry about implicating myself.  If I talk about a certain high school expulsion, then that’ll lead to me exposing myself as a former drug user and dealer.  If I talk about another one of my expulsions, I’ll have to explain how I came to possess a stolen handgun at a high school.  But all of that is public now.  Well known.  So now I can be completely real with people.

As I get reunion emails and letters from former classmates, I think, “Why would I go to a reunion?”  Some of these letters start with the phrase, “The best four years of our lives…”  The best four years?  Really?

Which of my four high schools would I return to?

Which of them would be proud to claim me?

Which of them would I claim?

I didn’t make good decisions in high school, and I didn’t find a way to fit in.  I didn’t maximize my experience.  I skipped home-coming all but one year.  Three times I was expelled right before the end of a semester, leaving grades to plummet – with zeros on all of my finals.  Four times I started over at a new school, and countless times I was a bad friend, moving on without looking back.  I quit on people. I disrespected teachers.  I didn’t listen when my parents gave me good, experiential advice.

So why would I go back?

But now – as one of my teacher friends says, “I’m in high school for eternity and will never graduate.”  But also, I have this wonderful life.  I was eating oatmeal and telling stories with my daughters yesterday morning, then I biked in to school on a bright winter morning, and the sun slanted in from the east so sharp I could almost taste it.  The Outdoor Program had a barefoot wiffleball game in the park in the afternoon, everyone getting muddy, then walking back to school happy, with eye-black and jerseys on, chewing Big League Chew in wads.  And I went home to my wife and kids.  And our family loves to read books and camp and hike and climb and swim in rivers.  And this is my life, present and future.

So yesterday, I told my students, “This is not the only moment you’re given.  There are sixty years in front of you.  You live beyond this high school thing.”