One of the most challenging aspects of creative writing is opening up.
Part of the bargain an essayist makes is agreeing to tell us about their experiences. The personal essays I write are supposed to be about me, but it’s hard for me to be forthright, to talk about my life.
They say, “write what you know,” but I always wonder what this means, why it might or might not be valid. Writing is something we do. We sit at our desks and we write or we don’t, whether it’s hard or not.
General advice does not help. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Going to a seminar about real estate may speak to you and, in turn, may result in earning millions. Advice rarely gets through to me, though. Instead, I sort of nod along and pass by. Maybe that’s not a good thing.
Anyone who desires to write memoirs or personal essays has to write about what they know. This could be why “write what you know” may not mean a lot. It’s a rule I have to follow. So then why do I wince, or even back down, at the notion of writing about what I know? I know that if I intend to write an essay, it has to be about what I have lived through and know intimately. But my gut reaction is to say, “No, I don’t want to talk about me. My life sucks. It always has and always will.” Nevertheless, who wants to read about someone’s wonderful life where everything they touch turns to gold and unicorns? No happy and well-cared-for person has ever had anything interesting to say, right? Name a significant author and behind their career is some degree of misery. Doesn’t everyone have some degree of misery in their lives?
There may be no way around admitting to being an asshole. I’m this, I’m that, I’m never going to get my shit together, and no one is ever going to want to read about this. We also know we can’t let second-guessing, self-editing, and doubt stop us in our tracks.
Part of me likes this challenge. Whatever we know may be, keep going. Maybe the key to breaking through a standstill like this is to write a draft. I’m saying all action, no thoughts upfront. Once I write a draft, it exists and is a thing in this world. Thoughts come later. Maybe a draft has to be shredded and thrown in a dumpster. If that is the case, move on. We have to keep going. A writer is a person who stays in the room when everyone else would quit. Be the person whose butt stays in a chair. Write a draft; it doesn’t even matter what it is. It could be a novel, screenplay, play, poems, comics, or a dissertation. Whatever it is, it comes down to working through steps. I prefer referring to it as “steps” rather than a “process” because, to me, “process” now takes on the language and system of businesses and corporate environments. Steps are doable. We get out of bed and take steps. We take steps to become a better parent or boyfriend, to get out of a relationship. When writing about yourself, you need to take a step, then another, and then one more.
I realize this sounds simplistic. Maybe it’s too much up my own ass or all about productivity. This all feels like spiels we’ve heard before or repeated from others. I am saying fuck writing what you know. Write! Isn’t that the whole point? How does it matter if it’s what you “know”?
We become what we know over periods of time, stages, drafts, and careers. Knowing is not visible and understandable out of the gate. I don’t know who I am immediately. And if there was more self-introspection, I might not like what I see. Where does that leave me? What we know never appears before us out of nowhere. It starts somewhere. What if what we know comes about after subsequent drafts? Thinking is just as iterative as writing. We begin by writing whatever we can and then later drafts become what we know.
Even then, why is it so difficult for me to write about my life? Why is it hard to be open and vulnerable? It can’t just be me. There must be others out there who feel the same. The next logical predicament: how can we write about ourselves and move past this dilemma? Can we? Doing so is never easy or pleasant. What jumps out at me is that I probably hate myself and my life. Self-loathing, lack of confidence, and belief in myself stands in my way. It’s self-destructive, pathological, self-sabotage.
Certainly, the “why” matters. I wonder if my questioning and reservations are brought about by being in my headspace too much. The more I look into this and write about it, the less I care or feel I know anything. So… fuck it? Partially I mean that: fuck it. Don’t overthink it. Thinking about writing a novel isn’t writing the damn thing. Write first, think in revision. Action is an essential part of any work.
Even as I type this, I tire of even talking about “writing what I know.” This self-examination and worry wears on me. It reminds me of reading books about creative writing. They get boring after a while; the same points are brought up repeatedly. Now I don’t even care. Care less, then care more… eventually. It’s turning the volume of music lower, putting the worry and over-analysis in the background, and then… action! Don’t ask or think about anything too much. The destination is out there, but who knows or cares where?
As we get more comfortable or have less to care about, we retreat to our headspace. It becomes our de facto destination, the closed habitat where everything of importance takes place. Our actual work, friends, relationships, and family become secondary. To be clearer, I don’t care about my job, my life, or anything else going on around me, so I have no desire to live in it or talk about it. It stands to reason that I have no desire to explore or write about any of it either. I don’t want to write about a certain period of ennui or stasis. I don’t write about what I know because if I did, I might spend too much time in my thoughts and not enough time living, which I hardly do as it is. And that leaves me with little to write about.
I might be describing a contemporary condition in which we don’t go to war, have few or no kids, and don’t have religious beliefs. This leaves us as free-floating amoebas or crustaceans out in the great sea, but then it also just leaves us with work, computers, and TV. Staring at a screen constitutes a large portion of my day. How is that living? It’s not. This condition of boredom and immobility makes mental illness the new default state. Near the end of his life, David Foster Wallace talked about where we might find some tranquility or contentment at the most boring jobs. His last novel, The Pale King, is about this notion. To be fair, I have not read it yet. I’d like to, though. But I am not convinced of his premise.
Some of this isn’t cheerful or nice, and it isn’t meant to be. Living like this leaves one vulnerable to mental illness and it gets to a point where becoming mentally ill feels inevitable, looming over us. What else can we do but lose our minds when we’re constantly locked to a screen? We can’t shake or escape this condition. It’s also easy to get locked into a certain routine. The modern experience I’m describing is a constant and never-ending state of boredom. It’s always there, reminding me that I’m not accomplishing enough or that I’m thinking too much. I’m sick of this way of life.
I wish I had an alternative model besides quitting my job, which I cannot do. I have thought a lot about giving up my phone, but I also realize that doing so comes at a cost. I could give up other types of technology and see if that works. I could give up YouTube and then Spotify after that. Although I don’t want to because Spotify has an almost infinite catalog of music. There are a small number of informative and enjoyable videos on YouTube. Why cut myself off from those? That’s not the right way to go.
Why am I afraid to write about what I know, my life? Certainly, I’ve learned over the years that I am just as reluctant and struggle just as much or more when I try to write fiction.
Why do I have trouble remembering my life? Memorylessness fascinates me, not remembering and not knowing. What memory says, how it works, what it includes and excludes, and how it plays out are often main subjects or considerations in memoirs.
Memory is slippery. Memory is water. Trying to remember things can be like trying to cup water in my hands. Memories elude us and slide out. For a second I think I have it, and then the memory slips away. Some memoirists can remember scenes from their childhood vividly and concretely, but I can’t. I don’t know what to do about this.
What stands in my way is the same shit always standing in my way. How can we move past this and write? The first thing I always turn to is reading a lot of whatever I’m talking about to help me move past some of the reservations. This means I should read lots of memoirs, essays, and creative nonfiction.
What if this challenge has little to do with writing and more to do with life? What if this is more personal, but I’m just ignoring that by falling back on the same tired advice? I’m convinced there is something more personal here. Is it that I never want to reflect about myself? Most writers go through periods of self-loathing and isolation. “My life is boring, my life sucks, I don’t have anything worth writing about.” This hobgoblin of the mind comes from how we view the world and treat others and ourselves. The advice “write what you know” may pertain very little to writing. Succeeding at writing might have more to do with changing my perception and habits. There are no shortcuts and these changes won’t come overnight.
By writing about not knowing how to write about me, I am writing about me. In writing about not feeling, I am being introspective. I know that “write what you know” has been shitty advice, but what about: write what you feel? Write what you’re curious about. Write about whatever you want.