Today at work our 19-year-old intern mentioned that one of her professors advised her never to write about anything outside her own experience. I emphasized, and emphasized again, that that’s a bunch of bullshit. Or, as my co-panelist Tod Goldberg said Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, “The old ‘write what you know’ thing makes for a lot of stories about 21-year-old Cal State Northridge students.”
One bit of slightly more valid conventional creative writing wisdom is that the more specific your story is, the more universal its appeal. Paradoxical but true. Here, try it out—which sentence makes you sadder?
1) There was a war and thousands of people died.
2) During World War I, a boy named Franz who really liked movies and had tried smoking once but was bad at it, died when the army took over his home and he and his mother were forced to live on the streets, where they both got, um, cholera.
Okay, bad example. Neither sentence is sad because the first is generic and the second, while specific, is sappy and probably inaccurate. I’m realizing that I know very little about World War I. Still, you get my point, right?
Except sometimes that point is as wrong as “write what you know.” Take my other co-panelist Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero, which I just finished reading. It’s a collection of very universal—self-consciously, intentionally universal—short stories that contain sentences like: “Pretty Girl and I moved in together, spent a couple of years in Mental Environment, Urban Utopia Variety.”
His stories have titles like “Man of Quite Desperation Goes on Short Vacation.” They convey stuff about consciousness and identity and branding that would make my CalArts profs proud. The problem with a lot of what I read at CalArts—not all, but a lot—was that it ultimately sort of lacked heart. Charles Yu’s writing does not. His stories are clever, yes (sometimes too clever to read back-to-back), but they are also poignant and sweet and funny and sad. It’s sort of like he knows all of us too well and isn’t going to give us the luxury of pretending it’s some specific character named Lucy who’s wistful and selfish and bad at dating. We have to own up. We’re all Lucy, and he’s onto us.
He broke a big rule, and while I’m not sure that such rule-breaking would sustain a novel (and who says he wants to do that anyway?), it makes for some of the most distinctive writing I’d read in a long time.