‘Write what you know.’ For many years it was advice that I tried to follow, a mantra so prevalent in creative writing teaching that it surely couldn’t be wrong. Except, of course, that it is. Or not wrong exactly, but misguided, and limited, and – more importantly – limiting. Taken to its logical conclusion, ‘Write what you know’ produces stories that read like teenage diary entries, self-absorbed and blinkered, closed to wider concepts and flights of fancy. It tethers creativity to the mundane and the everyday – more than that, to our mundane and our everyday. It turns every piece of writing into thinly-veiled memoir.
Thankfully, like most writers, I eventually found the courage to cut myself loose from Mark Twain’s tethers. My writing, I found, was better without it. But there has always been something appealing about the idea of drawing upon experience, and I came to realise that the flaw was not in Twain’s advice, but in my own limited interpretation of what knowledge is. Like most emerging writers, I’d taken it to mean my own life, my direct experiences. But knowledge is so much more than that. It comes in many forms (activity, learning, wisdom), through many senses (sight, smell, touch), travelling many distances (first-hand, second-hand, written in books). It encompasses not only what I’ve seen, but what I’ve heard, what I’ve read, what I’ve watched. It is everything that makes up this experience that is my life, and as my writing has grown and developed I’ve found myself picking and choosing different elements of what I encounter – of what I know– and weaving them together into new patterns.
That was the case when it came to writing ‘Sound of the Riverbed’ [featured in Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd]. The background – a female student, set adrift when seconded to a French laboratory – came from experiences my wife had when we were still students, shortly after we got engaged. There was an intensity and alienness to her experiences in France that struck me at the time, and has remained with me ever since. This was over twenty years ago, and that thought, that feeling, has echoed in my head for most of that time, fading in and out.
It was only after interviewing Tom Vowler for The Lonely Crowd at the end of last year that something finally clicked. Tom and I had been talking about political contexts in short fiction (specifically in his story ‘The Grandmaster of Gaza’), and it struck me that I’d never attempted to write anything in that vein. Both of us were keen to reject any suggestion of sermonising or moralising, but using real-life political conflict and struggle as the context for a story sparked something for me. Immigration has become one of the most contentious issues of our time, coupled with the xenophobia that often accompanies it, the fear, the anger, the rise in racially-motivated attacks and the resurgence of the Far Right. What would it be like to write a story with this lurking in the shadows? How lonely and isolated would those immigrants feel?
Somewhere in the far reaches of my brain, the ‘loneliness’ and ‘isolation’ boxes were ticked, along with ‘living in a foreign land’. The link with my disconnected student in France was made, and the rest came out in a rush. Before I knew it – twenty years after the event – ‘Sound of the Riverbed’ was written.
Perhaps I was wrong to reject Mark Twain’s ‘Write what you know’. Perhaps when we accept that the creative process is weird and organic – picking and choosing like a magpie, plucking the shiny objects from our memory and placing them alongside each other, seeing how they sparkle – it begins to make sense, to offer more than simply a call for thinly-veiled memoir. Perhaps we should write what the magpie knows.
Don’t miss Dan Coxon read ‘Sound of the Riverbed’ at our London event this Thursday (28/06/18).
Dan Coxon edited the award-winning anthology Being Dad (Best Anthology, Saboteur Awards 2016) and is a Contributing Editor at The Lonely Crowd. His writing has appeared in Salon, Popshot, The Lonely Crowd, Open Pen, Wales Arts Review, Gutter, The Portland Review and Unthology 9 amongst others, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He can be found on Twitter @dancoxonauthor and runs an editing and proofreading business at momuseditorial.co.uk
© Dan Coxon, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.