Should Writers ‘Write What [They] Know?’ by Rebecca Rowland

Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Rebecca Rowland, author of “The Found Boys,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.

It was January, one of the cruelest months in New England. The temperatures had been hovering in the teens most nights, and like other Massachusetts residents, I was turning up my thermostat and having second thoughts about my resistance to invest in an environmentally wicked but snow-friendly SUV. Meanwhile, on the local news, a photograph of a smiling twenty-year-old caught my attention. The picture was of a young man who’d gone mysteriously missing after walking home alone from a downtown bar near the Connecticut River, something that, on its own, would have been tragic. For me, however, it was heart-wrenching. The man had been a student in my English class just a few years previous. Two months later, his body was pulled from the water during the early spring thaw, the cause of death undetermined.

I freely admit that some, but not all, of my fiction is consciously inspired by my own experiences. My student’s death was upsetting, but what haunted its media coverage for months after was both the apparent similarity to other suspicious disappearances of young men in the area and an unspoken acceptance that the mystery would never be solved. I’d been to the bar where he’d last been seen alive, and the banks of the river where his body was discovered is visible from the train I’d taken innumerable times to New York City. A part of me wanted closure about what had happened to my student, but another part, somewhere deep inside, was a bit frightened as well, and my story for Transmundane Press, “The Found Boys,” was born.

The debate over whether authors should “write what they know” is one of great contention, the proponents and opponents passionately defensive of their beliefs. Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of one of the creepiest dystopian horror novels in recent memory, Never Let Me Go, insisted that “Write about what you know is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.” On the other hand, British crime scribe P.D. James didn’t run amuck, bludgeoning and robbing strangers (at least, as far as we know), and yet, in a BBC interview,  she noted that using one’s own memories is unavoidable, but “you have to learn to stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy, is somehow stored up, and sooner or later it’s used.”

One of my favorite writers, Tom Perrotta, admitted that “there are two kinds of writers: there’s somebody who leaves home and somebody who stays home. And I’ve always been the kind of writer that stayed home, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s going to work for everybody” (New York State Writers Institute). It’s true: while some of us rage desperately against incorporating anything from our personal lives into our fiction, there are others who happily dump it into the stew and stir. Does the latter work to our advantage? I think, yes, if the seasoning doesn’t overpower the dish. Let’s face it: none of us are Emily Dickinson here. We have to have some degree of ego to submit our work for public view. However, we as writers need to be aware that our lives—gasp—just aren’t that fascinating. It’s what’s filtered through the lens of our imagination that can be. 

Brass tacks? I have based characters on people I’ve known, but I’ve tried to create hybrids of individuals: inspired ghosts, I suppose. My student is nowhere in “The Found Boys.” As a matter of fact, the only thing that is similar to his tragedy is the setting, and yet, writing it was a sort of catharsis for me, a way of processing the shock, sadness, and fear. There is a time and place for memoir, and while it shouldn’t be immediately adjacent to fiction, I do believe it can be a short daytrip if it helps a writer craft verisimilitude in his or her writing. Hemingway once said, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” If nothing else, if writers wish to use their own experiences in their stories, they need to be judicious in their actions. Self-cannibalization must be tempered or writers will bite off more than they can chew, more than they can and still remain whole.

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A member of HWA, NEHW, and ALA, Rebecca Rowland is the author of the dark fiction collection The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight, co-author of the crime thriller novel Pieces, and curator of the horror anthologies Ghosts, Goblins, Murder, and Madness;Shadowy Natures, and the upcoming The Half That You See. Her fiction appeared most recently in the anthologies Movie MonstersStrange Stories (vol 1), and Strange Girls and in the magazines Waxing & Waning and Coffin Bell. To pay The Man, she works as a librarian, ghostwriter, and copy editor. Despite her love of the ocean and unwavering distaste for cold temperatures, she currently resides with her family—animal and human members—in a landlocked and often icy corner of New England. If you sign up to follow her at RowlandBooks.com, she promises not to send you junk mail on anything…unless you’re into it.

ON TIME is coming in late September 2020. Be sure to follow us on Amazon.

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