Writing to Understand The World Better
What Deborah Levy has to say about writing what we know
They say that you should write what you know. It works, sometimes. For example, in non-fiction, absolutely, you should write what you know, what you’ve experienced, what therefore you wish to impart to others.
In fiction, though? I’m not so sure.
Ok, let me start with a positive example. I spent five years writing my debut novel, The Imposter, and the moment when it all clicked was when I inserted a character with dementia into the story. She wasn’t the main character, but she lent something else to the story. And I remember thinking those exact words: write what you know. At the time when I came up with this idea I was at the University of East Anglia, struggling with the tricky fifth/sixth/seventh draft of my first novel while studying for my MA in Creative Writing. During my time on the course, Wendy Mitchell’s first book Somebody I Used to Know, which I had ghosted, was sitting in the Sunday Times Bestsellers chart, and dementia was something that I knew – I’d written a whole book on it. Now make that two. And so that was how the character of Nan appeared in the next and final draft of my debut novel. It wouldn’t be the same without her.
But I also believe that writers should be curious adventurers in life, and life could perhaps feel a little restricted if you only write what you know. I have written before on whether we have the agency to write a certain character, you can find that here. But there are big questions that I know I am asking myself each day, issues which we are navigating our way through, politics that we are grappling with in our desire to inhabit this world better. I mean, that’s how I feel, though I have also spent the last 27 years working as a newspaper journalist so does that make me any more curious about world events, who knows?
And so, I was delighted – for more reasons than one – to hear Deborah Levy on this weekend’s Desert Island Discs. You can listen again here and I recommend that you do. I am often asked who my favourite writers are, and Deborah is one of them, if not the one. Somehow I had missed any trailer that it was her turn to be cast away by Radio Four and so I was thrilled to spend forty minutes of my Sunday afternoon in her company. I know, I will listen at least a thousand times more, but I wanted to quote a little something she had to say on the subject of write what you know.
“I feel very strongly that we should write about things that we don’t understand,” Deborah told Lauren Laverne, “because there is this idea that we have to have to have hyper-coherence when we write and I think that blocks a lot of young writers who are interesting thinkers. Why not just write something you don’t understand for the life of you, and see what happens, so that you’re always going to write in between understanding something and absolutely not? And when you do hit a certain kind of lucidity and coherence – hard won – now that’s the moment where you just have a glass of wine and have a good evening, because it’s a day’s work done.”
It was with this same curiosity that I approached the writing of my second novel, as yet untitled (or at least undecided upon). I wanted to understand how life must feel to someone who identified as trans, who felt that the body they had been born into had betrayed them. Sometimes, when I am so determinedly defensive of female safe spaces, I find that my own feminist beliefs are in contradiction with those who are fighting for trans rights. I wanted to understand that better, and so, when I discovered that the place that I had decided to set my novel was also the birthplace of Hermaphrodite, it made sense to use this as an opportunity to tiptoe into this area I knew little about. There is no better way to do this than to create in your mind some characters, we are very lucky, us writers, to be able to explore the human condition in this way by birthing people if only onto the page.
And so I did, I created a boy, Eren, who later becomes Ayşegül. I love them, both of them. I empathised with Eren’s journey, his wishes, how he felt about his body, how he was treated, who he loved, how he loved. And who loved him back.
I took a subject I did not understand, and I got to know it better. If I could do that through the writing, wouldn’t a reader feel the same having turned the final page of the book? I hope so. I do not profess to know everything, but I sought to understand better, just as Deborah Levy describes.
And whether you are a writer, or not, isn’t that how all of us should journey through this life?