Started a new job recently, and it’s an interesting one, dealing with secrets, bureaucracy, the public, and the public interest.
It led me to considering the old writer’s adage of “write what you know”. This is (at least partially) sage advice in not speculating too wildly about things you know nothing about. George Orwell was a policeman in Burma, a teacher in England and a soldier in the Spanish Civil war. Terry Pratchett famously worked as a press officer for a nuclear power station, and has claimed that the only reason he hasn’t written a book about it is because no one would believe it. Barbara Ehnrenreich lived the life of a blue-collar wage slave to write “Nickle and Dimed” and Charlie Stross was a tech journalist back before it was sexy.
So writing from direct experience is good. It gives you exposure to intellectually engaging subject matter and gives you a good sense of the nuts and bolts of how life actually connects and interrelates under the surface. It also gives a certain texture to your environment that can’t be faked. This came to mind whilst reading a book from an erstwhile flatmate. Jane Rawson‘s Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.
The book starts off as dystopian futurism, a Melbourne unmade and degraded by rampant climate change and a breakdown in social order. UN soldiers are in the streets and people live in humpies along the shores of the Maribyrnong. Gross inequality and Dengue fever are integral parts of people’s lives. It’s all rather bleak and unrelieved, and the characters inspire sympathy, but little empathy. But then Rawson does a neat sideways shift into magic realism. spiralling into what I can only call a subjective view of someone else’s metafiction. Presented like this, it’s sounds just a BIT convoluted, but the unfolding of the ideas is well paced and the tone laconic rather than pretentious.
As far as I know, Rawson hasn’t ever visited a bleak future of the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, but I know she has worked both there and San Francisco, as well as working in the important business of maps and guides for aspiring travellers. I’ve lived in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne too, so there is a added vividness to the descriptions of a creatively ruined familiar landscape.
The novel also delves into the meaning of narrative, which is somewhat ironic given the (intentional) drifting state of most of the characters, making the apt point on several occasions that even if what we imagine we remember is selective and unreliable, the emotional impact remains undiminished. The Author depicted in the novel has limited horizons, the hazy fantasies of both the recent and distant past being simultaneously real to her as well as deeply inauthentic. This is acknowledged within the metafiction, with the invented world literally ending for its characters where the Author lost interest in its literary merits.
To write entirely from personal experience, is memoir, not fiction. There is always an element of the speculative, of “What would a character do if…”. A key element to that gameplanning is to know the board, and the rules.
No one is born knowing the rules of any game, it’s a learned arcana of knowledge. And if a game looks interesting, you can make a conscious choice to learn the rules. If a game looks really interesting, you can lose yourself in the strategy of a game, of the rich history, the deeds of great or infamous players and the almost infallibly rich setting in which it emerged and was codified.
The metaphor of sport is perhaps a tad limiting, but it’s a useful one in that it describes an intensely tribal passion, with an abundance of “deep” knowledge, and for which a significant investment of time and effort is required in order to learn how to play, or even to properly spectate. In writing a novel, you need to have the fanatic’s knowledge of your playing field, and a keen ear and eye for the aesthetics of the play that make it emotionally affecting.
Aesthetics often turn upon nuance. and all sorts of nuance come through a deep multi-sensory knowledge of a setting. This doesn’t have to always come from direct personal experience, but can also be developed through intense research from a variety of perspectives, triangulating some approximation of truth which can then be used as a solid setting for posing your “What if…” questions. Invention should have their roots deeply in observable reality, no matter how high they may grow above the surface.
Even if you’re not as ambitious as Rawson to set up your worlds cascading and iterating downwards, it’s still important to have a clear, holistic view of your world, without the concern that if you follow it too far, you’ll find it disappearing into mist.