Write What You Know

Here is the first chapter of a book I abandoned long ago:

The dirty secret of my family was that my father was violently sodomized when he was seven years old by a close and respectable relative. From what evidence or testimony that can be found, he was somewhere in the middle of a long line of innocent and silent victims.
I did not know this when my father was beating me up as a child. I did not know this when he was dominating my life through high school. I did not know this when, on a particularly heavy binge, he lunged at me with a bread knife after I was recycled for the second time in medical school.
When I learned about this, I thought I discovered what was behind his manic drive to succeed. He had taken over the family practice and had become world renowned in, what is admittedly, an obscure field of surgery. I also thought I had found out why my father dressed in the way he did. When he was not academically armored in three piece tweeds complete with a gold chain dangling from his waistcoat pocket, he was menacingly sheathed in a pinstripe suit that made him look like an Oriental rendition of a James Cagney gangster.
It did not occur to me until recently that the knowledge of the sexual abuse should have inspired me to forgive him for his mistreatment of his son. It was too late for that, of course. The past was no longer a compilation of individual events that could be resected and discarded. All the blows and humiliations had long since become building blocks, firmly laid and mortared, deep in the brickwork of my hopelessly warped character.
However, having been raised to the Japanese standards of politeness and conformity, I did take measures to pay some respect to his tragic past. That is why I not only accepted his invitation to dinner one night in July, but shaved my sparse beard, which I had nurtured for nearly a year, and tied my dreadlocks behind my head in a sort of ponytail. I wore a navy blue suit I had not worn since high-school graduation day and a paisley tie I had won in a game of bingo at a memorably unsuccessful party. My father was in his usual Dutch Schultz costume.
When I entered the place, which for lack of a better name I must call my home, we barely exchanged hellos and sat in silence for nearly an hour while my mother prepared food with the assistance of her housemaid in the kitchen. When the cooking was done, it was the housemaid’s thankless job to cut into the frozen atmosphere and announce dinner.
When we were finally seated at the table, my father broke the silence with an insult as usual.
“Why don’t you cut that stupid hair of yours?”
“I might.” I said.
“If you are going to cut it, why didn’t you cut it before coming here so I wouldn’t have to see it?”
“I didn’t say I was going to.”
“Are you trying to get on my nerves?” he said. He was almost yelling already.
“Yes.” I said. What the hell.
He dropped his knife and fork loudly on his plate which was still empty.
I pushed back my chair, ready to stand up and leave, because I knew my father was about to shout “Get out!”
He must have seen what I was doing. He bit back his words and kept silent. I wondered what was so important that he would fight himself so hard to tolerate me. I could read it on his face that this was not the usual smooth and friendly family get-together. I stayed on my seat.
Food was served as we remained frozen in this awkward position, my father fighting the impulse to leap to his feet and scream, myself with both hands on the table with the chair pushed back ready to leave. The clinking of the spoon was loud in the room as the maid laid the broccoli on our plates. Eventually, I drew my chair. And my father relaxed his shoulders.
We ate in silence. The maid seemed to have the hardest time of it. A small, middle aged woman, she had never met me before today and must not have anticipated that our family dinner would be like this. The ladle was visibly trembling when she poured the sauce on my meat.
It was not until we had emptied a bottle of wine between us that my father made another attempt at conversation.
“Your glasses are in bad taste.” He managed to sound calm. A major achievement.
“Uh-huh.”
“Tinted glasses are for bums.”
“Sure.”
“Retarded bums.”
“You told me before.”
“If you had functional ears you would have stopped consorting with your worthless idiot friends with their sick decadent ways long ago!”
“What’s for desert?”
This was my signal to my father to kick me out of his house. Nothing offended him more than to think that I took something, anything, for granted from him. Food for example. If I behaved as though a worthless excuse of a son like me actually deserved to eat desert at his house just because he was the one who invited me to dinner, he would definitely take a stand and show me exactly what the truth was. I knew that desert was still three courses away, but asking for it had never failed to get me out of my father’s presence. I was sick of him and I wanted to leave.
The maid, like a stricken animal, hurriedly went back into the kitchen to retrieve the desert.
My mother had to leave her seat to refrain her. Me and my father were left alone together again. If it was not for the sudden departure of the two women, my father would not have held back.
My father poured himself some more wine and took a huge sip.
“I have something important to say.”
“It looks like it.”
That was enough to make my father explode.
“I did not call you here so you can make your wise remarks!” he thundered. Everything was a wise remark if it came out of my mouth. I regretted not leaving earlier. That was always the case with me.
“Do you remember Takehiro?”
“What?” I was suddenly lost.
“Do you remember him?”
“What is this about?”
I had made the mistake of answering his questions with questions. That, in his view, was the last insult my father would take from me. My father stood up, shaking his head violently in frustration. Spit sprayed out from between his gritted teeth. His face was wrenched in agony as he fought with words that refused to come to his mouth. I used to wander what was so bad about me that infuriated my father so. I used to cry in bed and blame myself for the constant unhappiness in my family. Now, I felt detached as I never had before and wondered if he was actually so fragile that the slightest challenge to his authority made him re-live the humiliation of the sodomy he experienced as a child. Was that what it was all along? Or was it just hatred, plain and simple, that triggered violent anger in him by harmless questions from me? I knew all his explanations by heart, of course. My intonation implied this, my attitude implied that. I used to take his words seriously and took care with my intonation and attitude, but nothing changed.
“Get out!” he finally said.
Then my mother came back with the next course, some boiled vegetables and fish. The housemaid followed behind her with a tray of sweets.
“Get out of my house! Get out of my life! I beg of you to die as soon as you can!” He always meant it when he said that.
I got up to leave.
My mother objected and half-heartedly tried to calm my father. But I knew she would rather see me leave than to go through what would inevitably happen if I stayed any longer. In the two minutes it took me to get to the front door and put on my shoes, she had switched to telling me to be careful on my way back.
I left in my sardine can of a car. I would pick up a Big Mac on the way back to my apartment. The only thing that surprised me about the dinner was that it lasted so long.
As I drove off, all I could think about was what it was that was so important. My father was probably screaming his head off in uncontrollable rage at this very moment. He would be cursing me and what he perceived as my blatant rebellion. He would be blaming me for the breakdown in communication and ranting about how impossible it was to talk to me. I could not care less. I was hung up, though, on why he called me to his house.
He had something to say alright. Something to do with Takehiro. I hadn’t seen him in years. He was a distant relative, older than me by a couple years, a son of a prominent monk. He had a hard time with his father like I did. I remembered him as a cool delinquent. Ear cuff, surf shirt, a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips. Maybe it was time to give him a call. See what was up with him. I would skip school the next day. Not much of a deal was up anyway.

This story is set in rural Japan in the mid 1980’s.
It is a road mystery in the style of Raymond Chandler. The main character, Katsutoshi, a failing medical student, follows leads in the back streets of a smallish rural town in southern Japan meeting strange people and unraveling a small mystery.
The next day he goes to meet Takehiro but is greeted by his father the monk instead, who is as cryptic as Katsutoshi’s own father.
“I trust that you heard everything from your father?”
“Not everything. He was….. tactful.”
“I see. Yes. Quite prudent of your father. Quite prudent. A delicate matter like this needs to be handled with care. ”
This is about as much information as he can get from the monk who “trusts” the young man to solve the unspecified “delicate matter”.
Unable to ask for clarification, he sets out to find out what is happening.
He meets Gina, a mutual friend and a resident American girl to whom he once had a crush on. He asks in a roundabout way if she had seen anything unusual, but she had not. The same answer comes from everyone else, and Takehiro, who is out of town, does not make an appearance until the end of the story.
Katsutoshi, Kats to his friends, had been following around trying and failing to emulate the older, cooler boy most of his life, which is revealed as the story progresses. Being an heir to a prosperous temple, Takehiro had to get back into the fold. His father had been urging him to find a wife and settle down. Kats finds out, and initially fails to believe, that his old friend actually intends to marry someone. It is finally unveiled that the girl he decided to marry was Gina.
Gina, who describes herself as “a refugee from America”, had trouble fitting in with her society back home, and has a history of falling in love with a series of Asian men whose families tended to back out of their wedding plans. Kats discovers that she is a lone brunette in a family of blonds, and then finally finds out that her mother is a Native American to whom her father married against convention. She grew up watching her mother being politely distanced by her outwardly liberal West Coast relatives.
The best compromise Takehiro’s parents could come up with was that Gina must convert to Buddhism and accept her duties as an abbot’s wife, but they secretly wanted the marriage to be called off, even though they could not afford to publicly appear as bigots.
When Gina’s parents come to visit, and the secret in unveiled, Gina realizes that her mother, a Catholic, cannot accept her daughter converting to Buddhism. Her mother being the one person in the world that Gina did not want to alienate, she annuls the engagement. Kats is given credit for accomplishing the requested mission, to his regret.

Write what you know, they say.
This story actually meets that and other requirements for a good writing project. Not only is the story closely based on actual events that I have lived through, the location, the time and the entire atmosphere is very familiar to me. The story opens with a conflict, and leads into a mystery. Every chapter introduces more questions than answers until the very end. So what is the problem?

The problem, or one of the problems, is that there are no shootings, kidnappings or killings. When the main character is investigating a mystery, he must stumble across a corpse. The reader half expects it. I tried making Kats sleep with Gina, which was the most scandalous thing I could muster without veering too far away from realism. A violent crime in my neighborhood would be just too unbelievable for me. But that is the problem of writing what you know.
Stephen King writes what he knows. He may write about evil ghosts and supernatural creatures, but he is firmly rooted in his working class background. Yet he introduces things to his world that are unnatural. Carrie was about a telekinetic girl who lived in the world he grew up in. The town was real, the telekinesis was not. He did write about the world he knew, but he managed to introduce elements that he had never seen or experienced and made it work.
So, yes. You should write what you know. But if the story is so intimate that you cannot throw in a murder or two, then it is a disadvantage to write what you know. You should write what you know in moderation.

Maybe if I were a more skilled writer, I might have been able to finish the story and make it work without inserting incongruous corpses or supernatural diversions, but as it stood I could not maintain the momentum and the narrative unraveled.

Another problem was the story arc. A Raymond Chandler story, and all stories that follow the format, Pinball by Jerzy Kosinsky, Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, and others, all end with the same main character as the story started with. The main character does not grow or change in the duration of the story and that is the point. He only gets a little wiser. This is a lousy format for a story about young people. But of course, you know yourself. You did not tangibly change in the time span of the story. Every middle aged man knows that he is not any more mature than he was when he was twenty. So it is very difficult to write a story arc involving your growth no matter what the format.

The bottom line is, you should write what you know, but you are not writing your autobiography. Even autobiographies are fictionalized to deliver a more clear cut story arc than what actually existed. You need to be flexible enough to introduce elements that you know are incongruous to your world, and be able to tailor the story arc to fit the format of a novel.

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One thought on “Write What You Know

  1. I always have a problem with “write what you know”, because on the surface it sounds like “write about your experiences”, and doesn’t that avoid imagination?

    But I’ve come to understand it means write about the emotions you know, whether experienced or observed in others, and insert those feelings into a narrative of your mind’s devising. The point is, whatever wild, astonishing world you create, it will be flat and lifeless if it cannot elicit empathy in the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

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