Write what you know! That’s what all the creative writing classes teach, and it’s the phrase I come across whenever I stumble on an essay about writing. In that spirit, I wrote a satirical novel about being a private high school teacher while I was—you guessed it—working as a private high school teacher. That book, Academy X, got me fired from my job, so I soured a bit on the idea of writing what you know. Besides, if I only wrote about what I knew, I was going to run out of material fairly quickly, having spent my 40 or so years in fairly uneventful activities.
But if I wasn’t going to write about what I knew, what should I write about? I decided that I needed to set my sights higher for Club Rules. With my first novel I had worried mainly about making it entertaining. I still wanted my second book to be entertaining, but I aspired to do more than that. I had what English teachers would call “literary aspirations.” I decided to turn to the great ones for inspiration—a random grab bag of books from Dickens to Fitzgerald to Tolstoy. One night, as I was reading Anna Karenina, I had my epiphany—transpose Anna Karenina to the Midwest! If you do it right, literary types call this sort of thing an homage (as opposed to a rip-off), and with a little luck, you thrust yourself among some rarefied literary company. I could see it all in a flash. A rich portrait of social life in the late 20th century centered on a dissolving marriage. Hundreds of pages. Dozens of characters. If I was lucky, people would say I was Tolstoy-esque.
I wasn’t crazy. I knew I wouldn’t actually write a novel anywhere near as good as Anna Karenina. But I figured that if I set the bar high enough, it would still be pretty good even if it was only a pale imitation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
There is probably a niggling question at the back of your mind. Why the Midwest? Cold like Russia? Yes, but other than that, I can certainly think of some other locations that would make more sense for the transplanted novel. Some place like New York, where I currently reside. There was only one problem. If you are going to write a rich, panoramic social novel, it helps if you know that society really well, and the one society I knew reasonably well (from the simple fact of having grown up there) was the Midwest. So, despite my best intentions, I had already taken the first step on a slippery slope that led to, “Write what you know!”
Of course, I was going to write in the style of Tolstoy, so I wasn’t too concerned about it. As I started to unfold my story page by page, though, I quickly realized that my novel wasn’t anything like Anna Karenina. Not in tone. Not in scope. Nothing. If you pick up my novel today and read it (which you should all go out and do immediately—no, seriously, stop reading this, and go buy the book), you would be hard pressed to see any resemblance whatsoever. I did name one of the main characters Anne (part of my “homage”), and she does watch an old movie version of Anna Karenina on television. But that’s it. It was not Tolstoy-esque. It was not even Tolstoy-lite.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. After all, I am not a 19th-century Russian aristocrat, even if I do pride myself on knowing what a samovar is. But what was really disappointing was how closely the story resembled my own life. My novel, Club Rules, is set in a wealthy suburban town where much of the social life revolves around the country club. I also happened to grow up in a wealthy suburban town where much of the social life revolves around the country club. A husband and wife separate during the course of one summer. And my parents separated during the course of one summer. A teenage boy—well, you get the picture. I had set out to imitate Tolstoy, and I ended up writing the story of my life. I might as well have dropped the pretense and simply written a memoir.
But a funny thing happened as I worked on the novel. You see, life is messy and complicated and rarely resolves itself into anything resembling a satisfying story. In my parents’ case, there was no dramatic reason why they separated. And they didn’t even stay separated. They got back together and tried to make things work only to separate again and eventually divorce. They were also a fairly normal couple within our social milieu. But I wanted my couple to have more grandeur. I wanted to raise them up so high that their inevitable fall would have more power. So I made the couple in the novel better looking and richer and more important than my parents actually were. I also have two sisters, but I wanted the boy in the novel to be isolated and confused. So my sisters got stripped from the picture, and the boy became an only child. On and on it went. After realizing that I was writing the story of my life, I couldn’t stop pushing and pulling at the material so that almost nothing resembled what happened that summer. In the end, Club Rules turned out not to be the story of my life any more than it was an homage to Anna Karenina.
So where does that leave us with that old sawhorse, “Write what you know”? It’s good advice, of course. I think my own novel is much better because it is set in a place I know well. But I also realized that writing what you know is not enough. If it was, there would be masterful, 500-page novels about being stuck in rush-hour traffic or about sitting in your cubicle and updating your Facebook page. Ultimately, much of what happens in our day-to-day life is not that interesting to anyone but our closest friends (and often not even to them). You have to shape what you know into something more compelling and powerful than your actual experience.
I guess I am saying that you should write what you know but not just write what you know. That answer is paradoxical, confusing, even somewhat obscure, which seems to describe the writing process perfectly.
Andrew Trees is also the author of Decoding Love, a nonfiction book about the mysteries of attraction. Club Rules is his second novel, and follows the travails of a “golden couple” in the country club set who seem to have it all—until they don’t. For more on Trees, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.
Photo credit: Heesun Lisa Choi