Writing Rules That Were Made to Be Broken: Write What You Know
There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. Come April 6-8 at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hate -- and why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from Mira T. Lee, author of Everything Here is Beautiful, and E. Thomas Finan, author of The Other Side. Mira will be leading the Muse sessions A Rockstar Editor's Perspective on Revision (sold out!) and Writing the City. E. Thomas will be leading Laughing at a Funeral: Mixing Emotional Tones in Writing.
Mira T. Lee
We’ve all heard that first rule of writing: “Write what you know.” Followed quite often by “write what you don’t know.” My takeaway, and my advice: write what you care about. Passionately.
My own novel is written from several different perspectives: there’s Lucia, a vibrant, quirky, Chinese-American living with schizophrenia; Miranda, her straitlaced older sister, the “responsible one”; Yonah, a big-hearted Israeli shopkeeper; Manny, the steadfast young undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant who fathers Lucia’s child.
I both know and do not know these people.
Am I Chinese-American? Yes. Have I been diagnosed with a mental illness? No. Have I been a caretaker? At times. Am I a man? No. Am I young? Once. I have never owned a shop. I have lived abroad. I have not been without papers. I know something about loving someone who is not always easy to love. I have tried living up to another person’s expectations. I have succeeded, failed. I have known bliss and rejection. I have yearned for belonging. I’ve gotten lost. I’ve known powerlessness and frustration—especially with regard to the health and well-being of people I care about deeply. I’ve felt anger and shame for being unfairly judged. I’ve been caught in the push and pull and inevitable tensions of marriage. I’ve known the unbridled joy and love and exasperations of small children. I have lived through grief. I muddle through guilt and regret. I cope with fears. My world has been big, multi-faceted, filled with people of different races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds, people who search and strive and long to believe in human goodness. And I have channeled all my powers of empathy into feeling what each one of my characters might feel, into embracing each one’s strengths and flaws, and exploring each individual’s humanity. This much I know.
But have I followed the rules, or have I broken them? I’m not sure. I do know that writing from the heart requires a certain fearlessness, and that if I’d thought too much about rules, perhaps I may not have had the courage to write anything at all.
E. Thomas Finan
“Write what you know” is probably one of the more conventional rules for writing, and it makes sense to some extent. Our own everyday experiences contain a wealth of information, which we can infuse into our writing. Also, it’s good to know at least something about your topic—whether it’s the surface of the moon, twenty-first-century financial trading, or daily life during the early Mughal Empire.
But the adage to “write what you know” can also miss one of the real wonders of writing: the way it ventures into the unknown. A memoirist might come to understand the details of her life in a new light through the process of writing that memoir. A historian might grasp some new insight into the textures of society or economics in composing that door-stopping tome. A poet might realize new shades of emotion or language. Writing is very much a process of discovery. It’s about struggling to unwrap some giant gift without knowing quite what’s inside.
So often, writing is the act of expanding and interrogating what we know. It’s for this reason that I’m sympathetic to Aminatta Forna’s declaration in her 2015 Muse keynote: “Write not what you know, but what you want to understand.” We start to write for many reasons, but one of them is that craving for understanding—that voyage to a distant continent, which might end up being our own backyard.
Mira T. Lee's debut novel, Everything Here is Beautiful, was selected as a Top 10 Debut title for 2018 by the American Booksellers Association, and named a Top Winter/2018 Pick by more than 30 news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, O Magazine, Poets & Writers, New York magazine, Chicago Review of Books, Seattle Times, Buzzfeed, Marie Claire, Real Simple, and Electric Lit, among others. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as the Southern Review, the Missouri Review, and Harvard Review, and has twice received special mention for the Pushcart Prize. She has been the recipient of an Artist's Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council as well as the Missouri Review’s Peden Prize. In her previous lives, Mira has also been known as a graphic designer, a pop-country drummer, a salsa dancing fanatic, and a biology grad school dropout. Mira is an alum of Stanford University, and currently lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, MA.
E. Thomas Finan is the author of the short story collection The Other Side. In addition to academic journals, he has also published work in The Atlantic, The Millions, and Prairie Schooner. He teaches at Boston University.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown