bookmark_borderWrite about what you know

“Write about what you know”

You hear this all the time. The theory is that if you pull stories from your own life and use settings, occupations, and situations that you are familiar with, then your writing will ring true. Writing about what you know will also help to avoid errors like using words that Brits don’t use when a character is supposed to be British, or calling a street “Maple Street” when it should be “Maple Avenue” for a city that you visited once. But writing about what I know is something that I rarely do except in an indirect manner. I rarely use things that actually happened to me or to someone close to me. At most I draw on fragments. I do it this way because of my reasons for writing.

I don’t write fiction to write. I write fiction because it’s an opportunity for me to experience things that I don’t know, or can’t experience, or don’t feel on a frequent enough basis. For example many writers always write from the perspective of the gender that they are. I write from the perspective of either gender. I was only born with one gender and writing gives me a chance to view the world from the other. Or, I am married and have been for a while. I’ve experienced the nervousness of being single and meeting someone, but it’s been years since I experienced that first hand and I don’t expect to experience that again in the foreseeable future. Writing fiction allows me to experience that again, anew, as a different person, with a different person than my spouse. And without the effort and cost of an affair or divorce.

Reading fiction allows me to experience new things or to see the world in new ways. When I watch movies I can do the same. But when I write fiction I experience things much closer than I do when I’m watching a movie or reading a book. When I write I have to be right in there like a method actor — researching, pondering, then putting on each character’s skin and being them. I get to be the middle aged used car dealership owner who likes being dominated by his young office clerk. I get to be the young woman from the suburbs who takes a job in the big city and tries to find her way, or the inexperienced submissive who meets her first real Dom, or the guy who gets caught watching porn movies when the woman from the strata council barges in on him.

And it’s better than acting ’cause I get to play any role that I want. I can determine my own roles. The down side to this is that I also have to play the roles of the characters that I don’t like. I have to spend time inside the cerebral narcissist, the somatic narcissist, and the self-absorbed artist. I get to direct as well. I get to determine how things are played out. If I don’t like the way that things are going, I can put some effort into redirecting everything; my “life” and everyone else’s as well. I can make a happier ending, or a more dangerous situation, or make a scene more vague and confusing.

Another factor: Over the years I have written a lot but the writing is non-fiction. Most of this has been some type of instructional material. Either I’m trying to explain something that I know well or I’m writing to think my way through material to help me to learn. This last situation is similar to being in university where you are assigned a range of topics, you pick one, you research it or do your own analysis, and then you write a paper. My characters and situations for my fiction evolve in a similar manner. I find an interesting character or situation, I research background information, and then I think about how things fit together. The biggest difference for me between instructional or research writing compared with fiction writing is all the additional time that I spend analyzing, postulating, testing, and developing the rest of the characters, situations, and relationships that’s required for writing fiction. I also abandon a lot more fiction ideas than non-fiction ideas. And I get a much stronger reaction, a gut level, emotional kicker kind of reaction, when I write or read my fiction than I do with non-fiction.

Of course there are elements of me and my life in every character and every scene that I write. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t understand them well enough to be able to write them.

bookmark_borderWriting analysis: “Axis”, by Alice Munro

I’ve been waiting to find another short story in the New Yorker that generated interest in doing some more writing analysis. After going back to some older issues as well as keeping up on the semi-regular delivery of new issues in the mail I finally found an interesting story to look at. Unfortunately, it’s a story by Alice Munro. I say “unfortunately” because it’s intimidating to select the master of the genre to be studying.

As always, this is not a review of the story as a story, but an analysis of how the story seems to me to have been put together, from a writers perspective.

“Axis” appears in the January 31, 2011 issue.

“Fifty years ago, Grace and Avie were waiting at the university gates, in the freezing cold.” This is the opening sentence. We now know 1) that the story may include sections from different points in time, 2) the general time placement of the opening scene, 3) the names of two central characters, and 4) their education situation. But the tag at the end gives a physicality to the setting, some discomfort, and a bit of interest.

The next few paragraphs define the attitudes of Grace and Avie. They are in university to find a husband, and it is understood that to get a job afterward would be a disappointment. When the bus arrives they move to the back so that they can smoke their last cigarettes for the weekend. This emphasizes the separation between their young adult/student life and their home life, something which is always an important issue at that age. It’s odd that their focus at university is to get married because that means heading into their own version of home life. Maybe they expect that their version of married/home life will be different.

The last two paragraphs of the opening are massive in terms of what they establish. When writing fiction it’s important to generate tension and conflict to drive the story forward. In these two paragraphs we learn the following conflicts/sources of tension:

  • Sex or not? Grace thinks no, and she believes it keeps her boyfriend Royce interested.
  • Grace is in love with Royce, but we suspect that he is not in love with her because it is not explicitly stated and because she is afraid of losing him.
  • Grace makes jokes to keep Royce from giving up on her because of her refusal to have sex. She fabricates jokes about Hugo (Avie’s boyfriend).
  • Grace doesn’t tell Avie about the jokes, and hopes that she will never find out
  • Avie is not in love, but wants to be.
  • She thinks that sex might cause her to fall in love so she does have sex with Hugo, but instead she becomes worried about getting pregnant.
  • Avie would rather have Grace’s boyfriend

That’s a lot of conflict. Doled out in just two paragraphs.

After the first jump in time it is summer and we see the world from Royce’s perspective. He’s never met Grace’s parents or been on a farm before. We get some direct thoughts from inside his head. His description of Grace’s mother:

… Grace looked nothing like her, thank God. Scrawny, cropped gray hair. She scurried around so, she didn’t ever seem to get a chance to straighten up.

We get to experience his ambivalence toward Grace:

Favorite trees. What next? Favorite flower? Favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post?

And his general ambivalence, just before his epiphany:

One farmer at the end of a ride said to him, “Say, can’t you drive?”

Royce said sure. “Just recently I’ve been driving taxis.”

“Well, aren’t you getting a bit old, then, to be hitching rides? .. aren’t you of the opinion that you should be getting a real job?”

Royce considered this, as if it were a truly novel idea.

He said, “No.”

And another great section, this time from the mother, defining her position as a hostess trying to play up to her guest.

“Royce here is the type to spoil a woman,” she said. “Anybody with him around would be getting the work done whiz-band and then be enjoying ice cream every day. We’d be spoiled.”

# # #

Often when an author chooses the name “Grace” for a character, references to that name pop up. Her description as “fair and stately”. The description by Royce of her house as “so impressive from the outside, had not a scrap of grace or comfort within.” And her eventual fall from grace when caught in bed with Royce by her mother. And then she is bumped around ungracefully. “His movements kicked Grace away from him. He could not help that, hardly noticed it. She had her head buried in the sheets, her bare buttocks now somehow exposed.”

# # #

One last observation.

As always, I did some research and discovered this article by Daphne Merkin from the October 24, 2004 issue of the New York Times. She met with Alice Munro to interview her about her life and her writing. After reading this article and then re-reading the story two links jumped out at me. First, Avie tells Grace her dream about the difficult crying baby that she locks away and then she discovers a second nicer baby. This reminded me of a quote from Munro talking about her own oldest daughter’s portrayal of Alice as a distant mother. She says of her daughter: ”She wasn’t the utter joy of my life she might have been. I was emotionally more open to the second.” I’m not implying that this is the only or even the primary reason for the use of the dream in the story, but the parallel is interesting.

More direct is this one. Royce tells Avie about seeing her on his way to visit Grace. At the time he thought about getting off the bus and stopping to talk to her. Now, fifty years later, he asks,

“Well, if you had known, would you have agreed?”  …

Avie doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, yes,” she says.

“With the complications and all?””


Munro met her second husband when just engaged to her first. She says about with her future second husband,

… “what she really hoped he would do, apparently, was ask her out. ”I wanted him to say something like, ‘When I laid eyes on you . . . ,”’ she explains, her voice trailing off, sounding like one of her own multilayered characters, about to revise the course of her destiny on a dime, without so much as a goodbye to her former life. When I ask whether she would have gone off with Fremlin then and there, she says, simply and unhesitatingly, ”Yes,”

Write about what you know. Avie is not the only one of Munro’s characters to feel this way or to contemplate such things. There’s a lot of Alice Munro in a lot of her characters.

If you’re more interested in reviews of the story as a story, see here.

bookmark_borderReview: “Zoe Busiek: Wild Card”, the Ceiling of Mediocrity

I watch very little television these days. I do have a television in the bedroom though, and today I woke up an hour early and turned on the TV to see what was on. Between morning newscasts I found something intriguing on W Network. Googling it helped me to discover that the program is called “Zoe Busiek: Wild Card” and that it ran from 2003 to 2005 on Lifetime.

What was so intriguing to me about this program is how consistently mediocre the quality of everything is. The acting is, mediocre. The filming is, mediocre. The writing is, mediocre. It was great! It was as if the entire budget, crew, performers, everything had a ceiling of mediocrity and nothing could extend beyond. Joely Fisher (lead, daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens, half sister of Carrie Fisher) has okay legs, so let’s show them. Put her in short skirts. Chris Potter as Dan, the male co-star, is good but not great looking in a bland, Bruce Boxlietner kind of way. Give him some standard “strong male” lines and situations. “Where is everybody?” he calls out, slamming his hands on the desk at the unattended hospital entrance. A security guard happens to run up just as they happen to see the bad guy on the security camera in the basement. “Lock down the building, please,” he orders the guard as they run off, knowing exactly how to get to the area close to where the bad guy has the girl in the wheelchair that he’s planning to kill.

In a simply amazing scene the two stars are running in the basement calling the name of the girl (won’t the bad guy hear too?). They hear a muffled cry and turn. There is the girl, her IV bottle taped to her mouth (Why is she not dead? Earlier he was going to suffocate her with a pillow until he was interrupted by a nurse. Now he thinks that stuffing her IV in her mouth is enough?). Zoe hastens to free her, and Bruce, I mean Dan, runs off to chase the bad guy. We see Bad Guy picking up a piece of metal pipe that happens to be lying on an otherwise spotless floor under the water lines. Hot pipes and escaping steam are all around. Oh no, Dan is wandering close to Bad Guy! Bad Guy is raising his arms with the pipe! Camera cuts to Zoe, turning a large faucet, the type that control high pressure systems like fire hoses. (How did she get there? How does she know that Bad Guy is right ahead of Dan when Dan doesn’t see him?). Phssst, and hot steam sprays in the face of Bad Guy, who falls to the floor (Why does turning the faucet let out steam in the face of Bad Guy? And how does she know it will?). “Are you okay?” asks Zoe, “I thought I needed to let off some steam.” Groan.

Simply amazing. Action scenes like this are often given short shrift in drama oriented writing but in “Zoe Busiek: Wild Card” the rest of the writing is also mediocre. Zoe knocks on her boss’ door suggesting a drink after work. Her boss asks if they are getting chummy now. Zoe says yes. Boss (female, new to the series and had earlier stated after some personal disclosure that sharing time was over) immediately opens a drawer in her desk and pulls out a bottle and two glasses. Zoe, swaggering and grinning as if she’s already had a few, flops herself on the chair (open door, glass office windows, but I guess everyone else has gone home?) and they share a drink of something. Whew, that barrier’s been broken now.

Television is not known for quality art. Still, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” was at least professional. It didn’t feel like expert mediocre producers trying to get in under budget by hiring the cheapest writers/actors/cameramen/directors. Once in a while in “Zoe Busiek: Wild Card” you almost feel one or the other actors trying to rise above but no, the ceiling is there and they aren’t escaping. It’s somehow both amusing and comforting to see them try and then watch them sink back into the pool of mediocrity. Like watching your local sports team, the one that your neighbor’s cousin once played for. You keep following them and watching their games in spite of the fact that they haven’t made the playoffs in ten years. When they miss the playoffs again, you are comforted. Everything is the way it should be in the world.