Writing What Your Don’t Know

Here’s a reprint of a post I published on another site in 2011. It’s aimed at my writer friends, but readers should appreciate it as well.

When I ordered David Jauss’ “On Writing Fiction” (Writers Digest Books, 2011) I wasn’t confident I’d find much worthwhile. I have a basic distrust of how-to books. The last how-to I read is probably “Volkswagens for Dummies,” which I used to rebuild the engine of my VW bus circa 1969. Writing fiction cannot be reduced to a formula or a step-by-step process; so what’s the point!

Turns out I enjoyed the opening essay “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life”. In it Jauss takes on the “Write What You Know” school of fiction writing. I found the essay liberating in that he’s basically saying it’s okay to do what I do––i.e., make things up. Rather than write about myself, my fiction is about people, places, events and circumstances that I have not lived. My writing is not autobiographical.

What was liberating was the notion that what you make up springs from a kind of unconscious truth. Take naming characters for example. People ask me about how I came up with the name of the protagonist in The Expendable Man. His name is Nick Grocchi and I don’t recall exactly where the name came from. It just did.

Occasionally, I struggle over names. I put one down and later change it, and then perhaps change it once more the next time I edit that chapter. I’m always searching for the “right” name––the one that fits, that sounds right.

Other times I use the first or last names of people I know. Rarely, however, are they the names of the main characters in the story. Those are artificial names. A minor character’s name rarely matters. So why not honor a friend or acquaintance!

Not only did I know my protagonist’s name was Grocchi, but I knew all about his background. His father was Italian; his mother Polish. They grew up in Baltimore in immigrant ethnic neighborhoods that bordered on each other. As a result although immigrant Polish Catholics and immigrant Italian Catholics went to separate churches, they went to the same high school.

Nick’s father married a Polish girl because he knew he wasn’t going to marry an Italian. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just the way he felt. Like Nick’s father, I knew I wasn’t going to marry someone Jewish. Don’t ask me why. That’s just the way I felt.

Thinking on it, there must be some human instinct going back to caveman days that tells some people to marry outside their clan. Can you imagine a cave guy ignoring perfectly good candidates for a mate in his clan, risking bodily injury to raid a neighboring clan and drag a girl back to his cave that he’d seen for a few seconds from afar. “This is Uwa,” he’d say to his shocked mother. In her clan, her name was Oja, but he’d given her a new name and a new life. Eventually his mother comes around and accepts Uwa as her daughter-in-law. That’s how it happened then and it’s been happening ever since, except now the bride has the same instinct. She’s not attracted to anyone in her group either.

So, my character isn’t me, but in order to write about him, about how he thinks and acts, I have to understand him. I have to know him. In doing writing I discover the details of his or her life. Am I revealing something of myself in the process? Jauss argues good writing does just that, just not necessarily in a way that the reader needs to know where it came from. Makes sense to me.

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