Write what you know.
That was the mantra when I was in graduate creative writing school. We were admonished to write from our own experience, not to try to reach beyond our boundaries and try to re-create worlds about which we had no real knowledge and which would, thusly, come across as fake.
But like all mantras, this one has its limits.
For instance, my first book, The Algebra of Snow, is about a mathematician alone in the Adirondacks in winter.
Anyone being less mathematical than I would be hard to imagine—I struggle with addition. Plus I’ve never even visited the Adirondacks in winter.
There are central parts of the plot in the that book that I know nothing about either—the main (only) character’s mother died when she was young and my own mother was one of the first readers of the book. I was forty, and Mom was alive and kicking.
So what about that book was real? The very heart of it was—the essential aloneness of the character, the fight she was going through between giving in to the allure of the abyss or struggling back to safer ground.
So when I started writing my latest book, it wasn’t a surprise to me that the main character was married to a spy, had five young boy children, was a DC socialite, had a very present mother, and a ton of money.
Suffice it to say that not one of these characteristics applies to me in my present life.
But what is at the heart of the book—the main character’s struggle to understand what is behind irrational choice, to have faith when it is so easy to have faith in the wrong things, to believe that which she cannot know—this struggle is as real and true as anything can be.
John Barth once described what he wrote as “fiction, maybe—but truer than fact.”
So when I am drawn into the world of imagination, when I let myself go into it whole-heartedly, I know that I will find there a great deal that I don’t know, by definition. In fact, most of it doesn’t exist. Some of it is dark and scary. And some beyond my wildest dreams.
But I have come to realize that it is almost all truer than facts.
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