Fiction and the Self in Question


T.S. Eliot famously wrote that the progress of the artist should be a perpetual extinction of personality. While I prefer to substitute a Whitmanesque “expansion” for Eliot’s ascetic mandate, he was right that the literary imagination can parallel the spiritual disciplines of Christianity or Buddhism, which seek to break down the illusion of a separate and permanent self in order to awaken our empathetic connection to others.

After decades as a poet, I took to writing fiction two years ago because the first-person lyric viewpoint had grown too confining. I was also aware of a growing disbelief in my “ownership” of traits I had once prided myself upon. How many of my wise decisions were motivated by love of the good, and how many were attributable to fear, or conversely, to advantages I possessed that others lacked? So I turned my characters loose, letting them play out the grand mistakes I hadn’t made yet, and having a little vicarious fun along the way.

But “I know how you feel” can be the most important ethical statement we can make, or the most presumptuous. It’s risky to appropriate the experience of someone from a different race, gender, social background, or family history, especially when that group is more disadvantaged than the writer’s own. Are we truly seeking to understand the other, or stroking our own ego by identifying with the victim? I’ve come to believe that all writing is writing in the voice of another, even when we are supposedly being autobiographical. But that’s not always a politically correct position.

Thus, I was heartened by Erika Dreifus’ article “Ten Ways to Tick Me Off in a Writing Workshop” in her latest Practicing Writer e-newsletter. (The Practicing Writer is a great resource for announcements of upcoming contests, fellowships, and magazine submission opportunities.) Number 7 was, “Tell me that since you are a mother, you know how my mother characters should be portrayed a lot better than I do.” Erika expands on this pet peeve on her blog:


You’ve probably heard this maxim: “Write what you know.” Beginning fiction writers hear it, too. It’s a tricky concept. For too many people, “knowing” is synonymous with —and limited to—personal experience. When they turn to their sources of “knowledge,” they reflect back not necessarily to what they might “know,” but rather to what they have lived. That’s fine—for them.

What’s not fine is condemning other fiction writers to this same circumscribed material, and reflexively discrediting another’s work depending on what they “know” (or think they know) about an author’s own life.

Or, as Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy have noted in Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion:


When carried to its extreme, “write what you know” means that the writer who does not have divorced parents cannot write about a divorce, and the writer from a broken home cannot describe a happy family. “Write what you know” might discourage you from following the natural leaps of your imagination to new but fertile places; worse still, it might discourage you from developing empathetic bonds with individuals and emotions that have been previously foreign, an acquired skill that has value far beyond the pursuit of creative writing.

…[M]y fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience. In their belief in the all-deciding power of lived motherhood—and their championing of a somewhat remarkable uniformity of that experience—they failed to appreciate that it is something I, too, “know.”

For an essay workshop, this might make sense. As a reader, I, for one, certainly expect that essays and memoirs depict actual lived experience. According to my own code of writerly ethics, it would be fraudulent to write an essay or memoiristic piece that in which I am giving birth or raising a child of my own without having gone through such an experience.

But for fiction? For poetry? Is it not enough to have grown up on family stories of mothers separated from their children all too soon, through death or disease, to write about attachment? Must my name appear on a child’s birth certificate to address the questions a four-year-old asks as we stroll down the sidewalk, or to marvel over a toddler’s bright blue eyes?

So here’s my plea to all those “mama writers” (and for that matter, to all the “mama-centric” publications) out there. You know who you are.

Please give those of us who have not birthed and/or are not raising children a little credit. Please allow for the possibility that we, too, may have human qualities and capacities for empathy, imagination, and observation that, when all is said and done, matter much more to the practice of writing than does one’s reproductive history.

To me, it makes the most sense to think of one’s personal demographics (race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.) as a resource, rather than a restriction. It’s something to remain aware of, within myself, as a factor in the creative process, shaping my motivations and perhaps skewing my viewpoint. It should be of less interest to outsiders judging the poem or story as a stand-alone product. Of course, in a face-to-face critiquing workshop, person and product can easily become blurred, which is why I have my doubts about the merits of that format. I think the literary imagination needs the equivalent of the anonymous ballot.

3 comments on “Fiction and the Self in Question

  1. Steve says:

    This reminds me of something I’ve found increasingly true in my painting. I routinely break all kinds of rules that I learned in art school, and which I see repeatedly in trade rags, websites, etc. I’m not producing that kind of work. I’m not led to that. What I’m doing seems to require that I break those rules, at least for now. That’s how I am getting somewhere different.

    To me the creative life is like working a strange farm, where there are the usual fences and stone walls (rules), but often the best crops are growing oddly between the fields, or in places not normally used as fields, and half the time the crop you plant isn’t the best harvest. If you can’t cross those fences as needed, and go where the best food is growing, then we’re all poorer for it.

    So rules like, “Write what you know,” can’t be followed slavishly. They might help us keep the wheels of the tractor in between the rows, but what if the best work is elsewhere, or we, as artists, need to explore something new? How can we ever produce ANYTHING new if we only stick to what we already know?

    So I’m with you on your alteration of the Eliot aphorism. Expansion. Getting over the wall and into somewhere that borders what we know, but is different and unexpected. That creates the excitement we need to produce something lively, and often it’s the energy that really carries a work, and gives it meaning for others.

    I’m glad you’re letting those characters run around on their own, even if they take you places you’ve never been, or places where you fear it might be hard to do justice, or where you might be presuming. Real risks – but real rewards, too.

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