IN THE JUNGLE
“Write what you know,” they say. And I wonder, “What exactly does that mean?” The phrase always makes me think of a comedy skit, the origin of which is lost in the mist of time, where a melancholy Scandinavian chap announces to camera, “My name is Sven and I am writing a novel about my life.” Before staring off into the middle distance again, presumably for quite some time. Apologies to Knausgard but it doesn’t promise to be a very interesting story. Most of life isn’t, is it.
That’s kind of the point of fiction, I suppose: to take you to some place beyond ordinary experience, to invigorate the mundane, uncover the overlooked and tame the preposterous, to give you a fresh and lucid view on something or other. Novel, after all, means new.
This newness could well be staring out into the middle distance across five hundred pages, swinging wildly between angst and anticipation over the next sigh of the wind. Will the wind sigh? Or won’t it? Will I run my fingers through my hair instead? If you’re clever enough and committed enough, you can make even that work. But most of us aren’t that clever, or don’t have a publicist clever enough to convince others that we are.
Cleverness aside, though, is the staring Norwegian really real in the knowingness of what he writes or is his narrative as contrived as everyone else’s? Most of us, I would argue, need to tart up reality a bit, in one way or another, regardless of whether we stick closely with conventions or smash them to pieces. Whether we are staring silently into a fjord or fleeing a mass zombie attack, the vast majority of us must take steps into the realm of the imagined in order to concoct a story in the first place. As writers of fiction, as soon as we ask ourselves the question, “What happens next?” we are there: inside the unknown. Inside the new.
So how do we do this and stick with what we know at the same time? Many novelists go to great lengths to make this newness feel lived and real in their stories: Tara Moss fires guns and visits morgues; Fiona McIntosh haunts the Tower of London, lavender fields and all manner of exotic places; Nicole Alexander is actually a farmer.
But I must confess I don’t do any of these action research sorts of things, partly because some of the things I write about are intrinsically unknowable for me. In my fiction, I’ve been a Lithgow coal miner when ponies still pulled the skips; I’ve been a labourer on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; I’ve been a geologist grappling with the physics of atomic energy as he explores the Flinders Ranges for uranium. I’ve been a soldier. Even if I wasn’t in real life quite terrified of the thought of doing any of these things and completely hopeless at physics to boot, it would be quite impossible for me to be a bloke doing any of it anyway.
Almost all my research comes from plain old reading and staring into sepia-toned photographs waiting for them to speak to me. That’s not to say that none of my work is informed by my lived experiences. For example, I have fired a .22 – just about rent my shoulder apart with the kickback of the butt on discharge to discover that I am in fact a dreadful shot. And I have pashed my husband in an underground mine, with the clammy blackness thick at the edges of our lamplights and a great big loader growling at the rockface ahead. I must say, too, that in general I am fond of blokes and very much enjoy writing about them. They are some of my favourite people.
More tellingly, though, and regardless of gender, I find that many things I’d rather not write about have a habit of wheedling their way into my stories. Painful points of grief and uncertainty tend to be the surprise real-life guests in my stories, and I’m usually unaware until one or two drafts in that I’ve been quietly workshopping the past through the present of the narrative. It always shocks me when I see this. The loss of my parents is a recurrent theme through all of my novels; the quest for identity and a place to call home another. And of course there is love, in all its danger and thrill; its wonders; its tragedies. Its hold on my heart. My life. Somehow, I just can’t escape the me-ness in the newness.
And I’d say that this is the very centre of the centre of writing what you know: writing who you are. Unselfconsciously seeking out some truth, not only of yourself and your convictions, but the places you think are important to explore. After all, is there anything more real than slashing through the jungle of your mind to get at the sense and meaning of what you feel, of taking here deep into elsewhere to see where you actually are? Not so much a question of write what you know then, but write what you need to discover. Just how you do that – with machete or nail scissors – and what you do with what you find is entirely up to you. It is you.
Image: Kandinsky’s Yellow-Red-Blue, 1925