David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
What I believe about writing is similar, I think, to what Wallace was saying in the above statement. The act of writing is about discovering what it means to be a human being, to engage in a process of thought that allows for the discovery of what makes humanity tick. I write primarily fiction; however, what I’ll talk about here, as with most of my views on the craft of writing, applies to fiction and nonfiction alike.
The art of nonfiction is the act of writing about our human selves, which is also true in fiction. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, in their fiction, indicated an acute awareness of alcoholism in their characters, but were never able to acknowledge their own addiction to alcohol. In fiction, at least, there is a buffer — because, after all, it is fiction! In nonfiction there is no such buffer, as we cannot hide behind that word — fiction.
“Write what you know” is the most common piece of advice lobbed lazily at young writers. When I first began writing, I wrote about my experience of having lived with my alcoholic mother. This never made for good writing, and still doesn’t. This is because, even though 20 years have elapsed since I lived with my mother, there still isn’t enough distance between my life now and my life then for me to understand that experience to a degree at which I can write clearly about it. I believe a better piece of advice is — take what you know and write about something, anything, in a meaningful way.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t write about experiences you don’t understand. I urge all of us to write about our experiences, especially when we don’t necessarily understand them, or their meanings, on a larger scale. This is why we write, or why we should be writing — to discover the unknown, about ourselves, and others. As writers, we have an obligation to capture, in some way, the nature of the human experience as we see it.
In his 1953 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner said: “It is [the writer’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” — a statement with which I could not disagree more. We have no obligation to instill within man a hope for humanity, nor must we help him endure, though it is okay to have hope, just as it is okay to not have hope. I believe that, in order to write anything worthy of a reader’s time, it must be rooted not only in human experience, but also from a specific perspective, on a specific human experience. And, with any luck, by the end, you’ll have come to understand that human experience in some small way, and maybe even have your perspective shift at some point along your writing journey. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be enlightened by the rarest of all human experiences — coming to understand, and accept, that you simply do not understand.
Since the inception of man, we have always had the need to understand all things, creating gods to explain the sun, the moon, and the stars; blaming the Devil for the evil deeds of men; accrediting God for inexplicable happenings. We feel the incessant need to understand, to have reason, and that’s okay — from this need good writing is born. Great writing, however, occurs when we’re driven by that need, while at the same acknowledging that we do not have to understand, as well as accepting that sometimes we won’t. Inherent in what Faulkner calls the “privilege of the writer” is the assumption that the world can be understood in black and white terms, as good vs. evil, and that the great writer is capable of understanding all of it.
I could not write directly about my experiences with my mother because I didn’t understand anything about her, about what had occurred in my life as the result of her actions. I eventually realized this, and stopped writing about her. In 2009, when I began writing my novel-in-progress, I saw it as opportunity to put my mother on display, to show everyone the kind of person I believed her to be. However, almost 5 years later, once I finished the draft of the novel, I looked back over the narrative and had a massive realization; the mother is actually one of the heroes of the novel, but she is also a victim of others’ abuse. This is something I hadn’t been conscious of during the writing process. I realized consciously, but probably had known unconsciously much earlier, that my mother had suffered during her life, too, and, like the mother in my story by the novel’s end, became who she is as a result of her own suffering. Today, as a result of the process of writing the novel, I realize that we are all human, susceptible to our very own humanity, and vulnerable to the inhumane behavior of others.
I understand this clearly now, but never would I tell other writers to feel the same as I do — tell them they must understand that a person at whose hands they suffered is human, to help them, “endure by lifting his heart,” as Faulkner suggests — that’s not my job, as person, or writer — nor is it yours. The fault inherent in telling us that we can do this “by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past,” eliminates the possibility of good writing. The privilege he describes is not our duty, nor should it ever be our purpose in writing. Morality, in the biblical sense, is a very tricky subject to address in writing. Chekhov said that in order to have a good story it is necessary to have “total objectivity.” If we are imposing a morality onto our story, we are imposing judgment.
I believe I was able to capture a vital aspect of the human experience in my first draft — the fact that we all suffer. As a writer, I can share this revelation with my readers, but I cannot tell them what to do with it. Even now that I’m aware of this idea of suffering, I think it is a very simple and obvious fact, but it isn’t. I would have never understood this unless I took what I know, what I’ve experienced, and tried to apply it to my story. This is “writing what you know,” a snapshot of humanity frozen, which we can, and should share. We cannot go out and expect to search and find exactly what we’re hoping to find. Through writing, one should search for understanding, but never expect to find the exact answer you’re looking for.
Abandoning that need to understand, rejecting the “privilege” Faulkner describes, allows us to transcend our own humanity, granting us the ability to understand without understanding, which in turn makes us, for small moments at a time, more human than human — this is the true privilege of the writer, to capture the parts of humanity, good and bad, that are hard to see, or that we do not wish to see. There is a certain atrocity in the idea that we must remind man of “the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” To suggest that one is obligated to inspire man, “to lift his heart” with only such romantic and selective parts of his vast and complex nature is simply unconscionable, essentially suggesting that history books’ only mention of Hitler be that, “he was a German leader who loved painting and dogs.” What Faulkner asks of us is detrimental to human progress, the kind of thinking held by teachers who tell schoolchildren “Columbus discovered America,” that he was a dreamer filled with a longing for adventure, but fail to mention how he was responsible for the first killings in a genocide that eventually ended with over 100 million Native Americans dead. This is why our only obligation, the only truly moral act we can commit as writers, is to hold a mirror up to humanity and ask them to look, but we cannot tell them what they should see. We cannot control or try to accomplish this; it happens by chance, the byproduct of moments when our egos briefly disappear, and we come to terms with the fact that we are only writers, that we are nothing, that not a word I have written in this essay matters, that we have no obligations or grandiose “privileges,” when we begin to understand that we do not understand anything, that we are human and nothing we believe contains any value — this is when you’ll find yourself holding up that mirror to yourself. The only thing you need to do, is turn it.
P. Casey Telesk published his first short story, an alternate history tale about the assassination of President Truman, in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a bachelor's degree in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.