Writing What You Don’t Know

Writing What You Don’t Know – is the best adventure you’ll ever go on as a writer, believe me. Its hard, at times painstaking, always exacting but ultimately so rewarding…

When Isabel Costello invited me onto her Literary Sofa to talk about writing my novel, Sometimes A River Song, and suggested I might like to do a, ‘Writers on Location,’ piece, it was time to confess. I hadn’t been on location. I had never been to Arkansas. Not even close. I had not explored its mountains and forests or sailed its great rivers down to the Mississippi Delta, and yet place, in particular an Arkansas river, is the thread on which the novel hangs. It begins and ends with the river and the 2016-05-16-18-38-04river is constant throughout.

So how did I come to write about something so far from my experience, a place and a people I knew nothing of and all set in the 1930s?

Well, here’s how….One evening, by pure chance,

I watched a documentary film about a river boat community in Arkansas. I was fascinated by this fast disappearing world and felt straight away that I’d like to write about it, but it wasn’t long before doubts crept in. Who was I to explore these lives in my fiction? I’d never been there. What did I know? I quickly shelved the idea.

As writers we are persuaded that we should, ‘write what we know.’ For a long time I took this oft quoted maxim literally. Looking back I see it was not very imaginative of me but as a new writer I was unsure of my ground, vulnerable, scared of making mistakes or seeming foolish. It made sense to write what I knew.

Several years later the inspiration re-surfaced, in the shape of a brilliant short story, The Redemption of Galen Pike, by writer Carys Davies. Her story was set in the Wild West, far from her world, and reading it was a light bulb moment for me. Suddenly I found myself thinking again of the documentary, thinking if Davies can do this why can’t I? And so my river odyssey began, firstly as a number of short stories but soon I found my protagonist Aiyana’s voice and the novel was born. I began to hear her and I began to live in her world.

I still worried all the time about what I was doing. I worried most about offending the people of Arkansas, about getting things wrong, but whenever my nerve failed something would come along to steady it. Like this Toni Morrison quote which I discovered, printed out and pinned to my wall. “People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.”

Writing the novel involved a great deal of research, mostly on the internet. It was important to me to be rigorous and I went back again and again to cross check my facts and ideas. I worked hard on this. There were very few written accounts of these communities or archive material. I dug out what there was. I watched Kenny Salway’s Tales of a River Rat on YouTube. Poured over Turner Browne and Chris Engholm’s words and photographs. Eventually I summoned up the courage to contact Chris and he was kind enough to read a draft of the novel for me and give it the thumbs up from Arkansas. There were maps and there was fiction too, especially Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which for me got to the truth of the Great Depression better than any non-fiction account.

Gradually the light dawned: writing what you don’t know was what writers did all the time, whether it was sci-fi, fantasy, history, it was all about creating worlds, using imagination.

But it wasn’t until I reached the end of my novel and could reflect, that I truly realised the paradox, that in writing what you don’t know, you are writing everything you do know. Hadn’t I grown up on the Somerset Levels, that watery place close to a tidal creek? I’d lived by the river, played by the river, watched it change with the coming of the seasons just as Aiyana does. Wasn’t that landscape and my connection to it one of the hardest things I ever had to leave? Then there was the prison, where I worked for many years. I spent nearly a quarter of a century working with women like Aiyana, some who could not read and many who longed for education. And education had been the thing that had most changed my life, as it does Aiyana’s.

We are always writing what we know but we are all imagineers too. It is the job of the writer to imagine. And as Rose Tremain says, ‘the trouble about what you know is that it’s finite. Whereas what you don’t know is infinite. I prefer to keep snatching at the infinite. Invention is really the clue to everything.’

Here’s Isabel’s verdict on the novel

My View of Sometimes a River Song

It was astounding to learn that Avril Joy has no personal history with the distinctive Arkansas landscape of her novel, given the vivid and atmospheric handling of the river setting and life surrounding it. The feminist angle to Sometimes a River Song feels organic and of its time, rather than a superimposed 21st century version, and both the story line and the sensuous, lyrical prose testify to the liberating power of literacy. Readers will be affected by Aiyana’s unique voice and the engaging delineation of character and family bonds. Although there are shocking and brutal events, there is beauty and hope in abundance, not to mention love. An immersive and moving novel from small independent Linen Press.

TO FOLLOW – my top tips for writing what you don’t know.

2 Comments

  1. Dear Avril,
    Thank you for above piece about writing what you don’t know.
    I remember the Professor who had officiated in a university short story competition in which I was awarded a first prize, mind you, saying that a writer must write about what he knows. Well I knew nothing about drugs or attempted suicide, or being an orphan but it didn’t stop me writing about it.
    I remember when he said it it was like the whole world had snapped down to
    a little fearful closet, and I realised though he was brilliant in other ways, he had been too prescriptive. There are rules of course and helpful guides but to apply them as a law is damaging.
    So thanks again and I agree so much with what you say.
    Joe Sweeney

    • avril

      September 21, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing this Joe – I agree, all rules are there to be broken. If we don’t use our imagination that we are not using one of our greatest writing tools! Avril

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