Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. 

Writing Nevers

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.

During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.

As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.

After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.

NOTES:


  1. For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. 
  2. Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. 
  3. Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. 
  4. As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. 

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce the English-speaking world to a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text by Rita E. Gould
Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843.

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce to the English-speaking world a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.[*] Prior to Humboldt’s scientific exploration of South America, western society largely assumed nature behaved much like a complex machine that was, for the most part, stable and unchanging. Many believed that nature existed for humanity’s use, and some even argued, as French naturalist George Louis de LeClerc (Comte de Buffon) did, that wilderness was a wasteland that required civilizing. No one, as Wulf emphasizes, concerned themselves with the possibility that nature could be damaged or destroyed. However, Humboldt’s observations in South America (then a colony of the Spanish Crown) led him to a very different conclusion.[†]

The “Web of Life”

While in South America, Humboldt intended to collect plant and animal specimens and record empiric data (eg, air and water temperature) as most naturalists did. However, the Prussian-born polymath had an additional aspiration: he wanted to see how natural forces worked in concert. Seeking a “big picture” view of nature, Humboldt’s approach was interdisciplinary and incorporated aspects of art, philosophy, poetry, history and politics. Humboldt’s choice to be inclusive and to compare across disciplines was unique, given that most scientific studies tended towards specialization and excluded the arts. His study of nature was not merely intellectual but also embraced emotional responses to the natural world.

With this “global view”, Humboldt’s radically revised the way in which nature was perceived. Far from the faithful machine depicted by René Descartes and others, Humboldt realized that nature was a delicately balanced “web of life”, one that human could tear asunder. While at Lake Valencia, Humboldt discovered that clear cutting a forest for cash crops yielded barren fields, a dried up river, and soil erosion. The first to recognize forests’ ecological role (ie, cooling effect, retention of water and soil), Humboldt would warn against irresponsible farming and mining practices. Thus, he became a forerunner of the environmental movement.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photo credit: Jeremy S. Henderson.
Nature writer, preservationist, and Sierra Club founder John Muir was among those whom Humboldt inspired. As an activist, Muir campaigned to designate several areas (eg, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon) as national parks. (Photo of sequoias in Muir Woods Monument. Credit: Jeremy S. Henderson.)

Widespread Influence

In writing about Humboldt, Wulf seeks to illuminate the reach of his influence from his time to ours. She describes contemporary scientists whose careers were supported, launched, or even inspired by Humboldt, among them Charles Darwin. Humboldt’s prominence in the scientific community (she refers to him as its “nexus”) existed alongside his ardent support for the free exchange of ideas and democracy.[‡]  In South America, he witnessed the horrors of slavery and the abuses visited on the indigenous people whose ancient cultures were destroyed. His writings condemn slavery and challenge the supposed savagery of indigenous peoples. Símon Bolívar met Humboldt in Paris and found in Humboldt someone who admired his homeland and shared his disgust with Spanish colonial rule; their conversations would lead Bolívar to consider the possibility of revolution. Humboldt’s vision of nature and popular publications resonated with writers such as English Romantic poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wadsworth; poets Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman; American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and nature writers such as John Muir. Wulf also devotes several chapters to disciples of Humboldt who carried on his legacy.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text and photo by Rita E. Gould
Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, was heavily influenced by Humboldt’s writings, in particular his book Visions of Nature. (Walden Pond. Credit: Rita E. Gould.)

Humboldt’s Legacy

Wulf’s admiration for Humboldt is both deserved and contagious. Discovering the “hidden” history behind concepts I studied in my undergrad science courses was exciting:[§] I had no idea that adventurous undertakings such as mountain climbing led to vegetation and climate zones, let alone who was responsible for this new way of categorizing plants. And as someone with a degree in literature and one in with environmental studies, reading about Humboldt was fascinating as I saw names from two very disciplines intermingle, whether they influenced him (eg, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Immanuel Kant) or he inspired them (eg, Darwin, Thoreau, Muir). It truly is amazing to see how interdisciplinary knowledge unites to change the world. And it’s perhaps for this reason that Wulf hopes to restore Humboldt to his former prominence. As we now face human-precipitated climatic changes he once warned against, the interdisciplinary approaches he used will likely be needed. According to Wulf, Humboldt may well be the inspirational figure to guide us through these difficult times.

 NOTES:

[*] Wulf posits that Humboldt’s ideas potentially were so self-evident that his contributions was forgotten but considers the anti-Germany sentiment following the outbreak of World War I as a more likely cause.

[†] An earthquake that occurred not long after Humboldt’s arrival left him shaken as it forever dispelled the notion that nature was static.

[‡] Some considered his acceptance of a pension from the Prussian monarchy hypocritical, while Humboldt looked at it more pragmatically: he could not pursue his academic studies without financial support. He did attempt to use his position to positively influence the monarchy and would successfully ensure that all slave who entered Prussia would be freed immediately. Humboldt’s commitment to democracy also meant he was bitterly disappointed when the unification of Germany led to another monarchy in place of the federation he favored.

[§] And nowhere near as awkward as the time I realized my knowledge of the scientific method did not extend to its lengthy history.

The Writing Reboot

In which I finally give the boot to a several projects on the roster and move onto better writing prospects.

After a dismal and unproductive December, picking up where I left off my writing (and, to a lesser extent, reading)[*] has been challenging, especially where it concerns this blog. Some of the seasonal posts I planned, sadly, will remain postponed until a more appropriate moment. New post ideas for the new year need to be generated (of course), and there’s the small matter of what to do with those potential posts I thought would pan out but have produced, well, nothing. Whether they were in progress or in the notetaking stage, I’m finally admitting that I won’t continue writing on those topics.

There’s something terribly sad about shelving a project that once seemed so full of promise. Yet I feel it’s one of those painful and necessary parts of writing, much akin to revisions and editing. A particular sentence may stun with its style or gorgeous imagery, but it deserves deletion if it doesn’t flow with the paragraph it belong to. Similarly, a scene that doesn’t serve the story in terms of character insight, exposition, or plot development should be cut. And the same decisions must be made for writing projects that aren’t panning out. For example, I planned to write about my travels through the Seattle area in conjunction with a book set in that locale. As I began writing, though, I discovered that the tone of the two experiences didn’t mesh well and my interest waned.[†] And if I’m not excited what I’m attempting to write, I doubt someone else will find joy there, either.

Project officially scrapped.

So, I’m back to revising my list to make sure I’m ready for a writerly 2018. While it might be difficult to discard some of my ideas (especially the ones I sunk some time into developing), I’ve gained a better understanding of what interests me as a writer.[‡] With this awareness, I can better focus my writing time on more intriguing topics. Such as this great biography about a scientist who had a significant impact on how we understand nature, a topic which I’m looking forward to discussing at length in an upcoming post.

Have you decided to shelve a writing project? What made you decide it wasn’t worth pursuing further?

[*]Bookmarks and reading lists (such as Goodreads) excel at keeping one’s place.

[†] One sure sign that a project isn’t working out for me is that I keep electing to write about something, anything else every time I attempt to work on it.

[‡] And as someone whose deleted a post that I spent significant time writing and marketing, I’m far more pleased by decision to remove what doesn’t work than keep something that I feel is subpar.

Clean Sweep: Righting My Writing Space

When creative clutter turns catastrophe, it’s time to right your writing space.

Mistakes Were Made

Recently, I had a literal light bulb moment. The lamp on my desk, which had been flickering, made a popping noise and then everything—computer monitor included—went dark. A quick trip to the circuit breaker box, however, restored the power. My computer rebooted without problem and, happily, my documents were unharmed.[*] But as I wormed my way underneath my desk to unplug the offending lamp, I realized it was time I finally sorted out my writing space.

My writing desk lives in the bonus room of our house, an addition off our dining room that we use as office space. While it’s technically a shared space, I use this room the most, especially since my spouse decided its locale wasn’t quiet enough for conference calls when working from home. So, we spent a day (somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve) moving me into a larger desk so that I could have more space for my writing and other projects.[†] While we succeeded in rearranging and discarding old furniture and miscellany, I still needed to organize where my assorted belongings would reside on the desk. Plus, there were several boxes that needed to be sorted and stowed…somewhere. But, given the hour, I reluctantly agreed to get to it later.

Ah, later. Such a fatal word.

From Creative Clutter to Catastrophe

Of course, I didn’t return to the task during the holidays (so many social calls) or afterwards (too busy). On occasion, I filed items or slipped some odds and ends away. More often, though, I nudged items under the desk, shuffled piles around my desk, and absentmindedly stuffed items in the drawers when something was in the way. And I continued to write and manage my other projects as usual. While I’m inclined to indulge in chores when I write,[‡] the one place I leave untouched is my desk; I like to spread out the books I’m reading or using for research as well as my notes while I’m at the keyboard. I rarely clear off my desk completely but I tuck away items I don’t need once I finish a project. But more and more items lingered on my desk because they had nowhere else to go.

For some time, though, it was little more than a nuisance. Although I was irked by the unfinished job, I promised myself I’d get to it eventually—with that eventuality occurring in some distant month. My dissatisfaction grew when I found myself searching for important documents I stashed in some obscure locale. When I had to stop writing to hunt for a hefty tome that had been swallowed by a pile of paperwork (and I’m not sure what else), it was a sign that my shuffling piles around to make a spot for writing notes wasn’t working well. Having to wriggle past now dusty boxes to find an outlet finally forced me to admit that it was time for a clean sweep. The constant interruptions were officially more annoying than the clutter itself. So, off I went to organize, however reluctantly.

Righting My Writing Space

When it comes to writing, there’s nothing wrong with a little desktop chaos.[§] The question is whether the writing space works for the writer. On any given day, multiple obligations and needs pull us in different directions, often taking us away from our writing. We don’t need to get in our own way as well. In my case, too much clutter distracted me from writing. Even when I wasn’t writing, being unable to find items I needed turned my writing space into a source of irritation when it should be the place where I focus on the words. Reorganizing my desk was just another step toward creating a better writing environment. And while my desk may not be magazine ready (and the office still needs work), I already feel less crowded.

NOTES:

[*] Documents that automatically save for the win!

[†] Arts and crafts as well as household finances, plus whatever comes up.

[‡] As noted in my first post a year ago!

[§] I’m told a messy desk is a sign of creativity. I’ve been very creative, apparently.

Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women

The timing of Angela Saini’s recently published book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,[*] seems almost prescient following the publication of the Google memo. Once again, science has been invoked to demonstrate that inequalities between men and women exist because of biological difference instead of lingering prejudices about women’s capability. But, as Saini cautions us, such science isn’t without its biases[†] nor is there necessarily consensus on these findings. In Inferior, Saini seeks to provide insights into controversial studies and theories existing in several scientific disciplines that intimate or have claimed that huge biological gaps exist—ones reinforcing damaging stereotypes—and the new research challenging these findings, even when the facts don’t readily dispel such stereotypes.

Evolving Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Darwin assumed men drove evolution but newer studies focus on how evolutionary forces affected women, dispelling notions of female passivity, inferiority, and even chastity.

When they do, however, the results can be quite eye opening. Among the disciplines that Saini investigates, evolutionary biology has greatly altered its view of women, in no small part due to women scientists. Charles Darwin argued that the pressure only men experienced to obtain mates drove evolution, cementing male superiority to women in every way. Men became hunters, while women, passively engaged in childcare, evolved only because they inherited some of their father’s better qualities. For Darwin, men’s preeminence in all fields proved his point.[‡] Recent studies of increasingly rare modern hunter–gatherer groups, however, reveal cultures where men are caregivers and women are hunters, disputing the idea that such roles are predestined. Indeed, scrutinizing these populations (not to mention animal populations[§]) also contradicts the notion that females are universally monogamous.

Contentious Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Among the cases where “facts are greyer” than people find comfortable, testosterone appears to produce small behavioral sex differences.

However, some areas of study still are poorly understood and others hotly debated. Notably, the role of sex hormones (responsible for sexual development and reproduction) remains less clear. Once thought to be the agents that made men masculine (testosterone) and women feminine (estrogen and progesterone), it’s now understood that these hormones are produced by the gonads of both males and females, albeit in differing amounts. While this discovery dismissed the view that masculinity and femininity were opposites, lingering questions about how these hormones interact within our bodies and affect our minds remain. The theory that sex hormones create significant differences between the brains of male and female fetuses, predisposing them to certain roles, is among the more controversial topics. However, it’s important to recall that the roles of culture and child rearing cannot be ruled out in such cases. And while “small behavioral sex differences” associated with testosterone have been demonstrated in young children (72), most studies tend to show more overlap than difference in typical child development.

Inferior serves as a much-needed corrective to assumptions that science provides clear, objective evidence that significant differences exist between women and men. As science strives to gain a clearer picture of women, it’s more than apparent that women are far from inferior. Indeed, the theme of humanity’s plasticity runs throughout Inferior, suggesting that men and women have more in common than not. And that, indeed, is a great discovery.

NOTES:

[*] Saini, Angela. Inferior: how science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press, 2017.

[†] Saini observes that the biases that kept women from participating work likely prejudiced science’s objectivity. Women in science, regardless of how underrepresented they are due to social disparities (ranging from childcare to gender bias and sexual harassment), has influenced how science is performed, with new ideas being considered and old ones challenged, very often by women scientist. (10).

[‡] Saini argues here (and elsewhere when disputing how the Google memo got the science wrong) that Darwin was hardly the only man of his time to conflate structural inequality with biological differences (14–8).

[§] That’s not to say all species engage in promiscuous behavior, just that it’s incorrect to assume that all females are monogamous (136–7).

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.

NOTES:

[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.