October 1, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On Writing What You Know

I have in my hands the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—it has the now-familiar square shape of an Archipelago Books publication and a yellow cover with an image from Edvard Munch’s The Sun. It will likely take me several months to read all 1,152 pages, but still, simply having the book feels like a kind of ending—I can see the physical conclusion to the long series, the final page with the last of its many words.

I began the My Struggle series back in 2015, putting it on hold at the library on a whim after reading an essay by Knausgaard in The New York Times. In the three years since, I have to admit that these novels have been the most emotionally engaging of all the books I’ve read, perhaps because as a writer, I saw a lot of myself in Knausgaard: the books are, after all, about a man learning to become a writer, and in the last three years, as I’ve discussed on the blog before, I’ve felt like I’ve undergone my own significant literary growth—publishing my first short story, getting my novel accepted for publication, feeling like I’ve found my voice, variations of the same things Knausagaard writes about, especially in Book 5, which covers his 20s and ends with the publication of his debut novel. People obviously interpret the central theme of the series differently depending on their own experiences, and for many the titular “struggle” is Karl Ove’s fraught relationship with his father, but to me it was clearly his struggle to become a writer, to create art amidst the bourgeois mundanity of contemporary life.

On the other hand, it’s strange that I was so drawn to the raw, honest auto-fiction of Knausgaard, considering the way my own literary tastes have developed. Much of what I’ve written for this blog is a celebration of imagination and postmodernism and a critique of realism, and my own literary development required moving away from realism—rewriting my novel to make it more heavily fictional and tongue-in-cheek, undertaking a project of historical fiction short stories that required long hours of research into worlds nothing like my own, trying above all to go beyond myself in what I wrote. And yet, at the same time, I was obsessed with this writer who was writing about his own life.

The writing mantra “Write What You Know” has, rightfully, been criticized. “‘Write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard,” says Kazuo Ishiguro in an interview with ShortList quoted on LitHub. “It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.” More amusingly, Gore Vidal has this to say, in an interview with LARB (quoted once again on LitHub):

…it’s always about somebody trying to get tenure in Ann Arbor, and his wife leaves him because of that au pair from England, and the child is autistic, and we have a lot of hospital scenes that are heartbreaking. And this goes on, and on, and on. I once had to judge the National Book Awards. There was no fiction in it—there was nothing. There was certainly no literature in it. It was just “write about what you know.” And what they knew wasn’t very much. At least with me you’ll find out who was Buchanan’s Vice President.

My own writing teacher, Lou Mathews, meanwhile, says that people usually start with the familiar stories (first love, death of a relative, etc. etc.) but that once you write those, you’ll have to move beyond your own experiences.

So what then is Knausgaard’s secret? Why does it work when Knausgaard writes what he knows, whereas for the rest of us it often comes across as dull and tedious? There are two answers, I think. The first is that Knausgaard’s writes about experiences that are deeply significant. Many of us when we first enter a writing class end up writing short stories about small, trivial things: a romance that didn’t work out, a small fight with our parents, that time we hung out with our high school friends and talked about the future. Despite his reputation, Knausgaard doesn’t actually write about the small stuff. He starts with his father’s death, moves on to his marriage to his second wife and his frustrations with being a father, builds to the triumph of the publication of his first novel and simultaneous collapse of his first marriage, and then, as the reviews of Book 6 indicate, concludes with a discussion of his wife’s suicidal depression. Many of us are perhaps unwilling plunder our lives for these most fraught emotional moments, or else are afraid of sinking into melodrama, but if we want novels about our own experiences to resonate as Knausgaard’s do, we have to be willing to write about the experiences that were our most significant. It’s no accident that Books 3 and 4, the weakest in the series, don’t have at their core any central, life event.

The second answer, meanwhile, which I think is even more important, is that despite what profiles and reviews often say (such as this recent one from The New Republic, which states that Knausgaard “flees the conventions of the novel—plot, character development, a smooth and accomplished style—to focus purely on the author and his experiences” and that “no moment is too mundane to escape his notice, no memory so distant that it can’t be recalled with the force of naked experience”), Knausgaard is a very artificial writer who very carefully constructs the experiences he presents. Book 1, for example, is structured to build to the long extended scene of Knausgaard cleaning his father’s house after his death from alcoholism, a scene which consciously mirrors another long scene in the first half of the book of young Karl Ove trying to buy alcohol and go to a New Year’s party. Book 2, meanwhile, has more of a nested structure, with a long dinner party at its center. And Book 5 builds in pace until by the end entire years are being dispensed with in one sentence as Knausgaard gets ever closer to his elusive goal of finishing his debut novel. This is not simply an author writing “naked experience.” They are experiences crafted and structured in consciously artificial ways, just like any novel.