John Steinbeck, The Paperbook Collective, Thomas Steinbeck
Comments 15

Write What You Know.

That is one of the most highly contested, controversial pieces of advice a writer can be given.

That and don’t make you sentences too long.

This latter piece of advice was given to me by my university lecturer on a recent assignment, in a unit laughingly entitled ‘Introduction to Writing. She marked me down for using ‘run-on’ sentences. Actually deducted marks for this apparent literary faux pas. In response, I would like to turn her attention to the following sentence.

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. 

That’s a long sentence if I’ve ever seen one. I wonder if she would mark Jack Kerouac down for his inability to properly punctuate?

Anyway, this little rant is beside the point. Back to that old faithful — write what you know.

Everyone has different opinions on this seemingly innocuous line. Obviously the vast majority choose to ignore it, otherwise we wouldn’t have fantasy or sci-fi or fairy tales or any of those other genres that bring a wonderful sense of unrealism to reading.

But for the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on those people who do choose to write what they know. Why? Because the December Issue of The Paperbook Collective is The Culture Issue, which means I am asking you specifically to write about what you know, what is familiar to you, your home and your culture and your country and your surroundings and your literary techniques and anything else that is specific to yourself and who you are.

Seeing as November is A Month of Steinbeck, it would be remiss of me not to include some information about one of my favourite literary families. And luckily for me, both John and his son Thom are perfect examples of the beauty in writing what you know. 

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. Sound familiar? That’s probably because the vast majority of his novels, novellas and short stories were set in this very part of America. Growing up, Steinbeck worked on farms in the area, undoubtedly developing his affinity with local farmers and farm hands that would play such a significant role in his literary works. His books focus heavily on the social and economic hardships endured by the families and workers of this region; his empathetic portrayals of the downtrodden are what makes his books such enduring classics.

Check out my reviews of Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row.

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Like father like son. Thom Steinbeck also bases the vast majority of his works in California, continuing his father’s literary legacy. I am currently working my way through Thom’s latest novellas; check out my review of Cabbages and Kings. Reviews are upcoming for his next two novellas, but I also can’t wait to get my hands on Down to a Soundless Sea, Thom’s first novel which resonates with the rich history and culture of California. Another brilliant looking collaborative work that I can’t wait to get my hands on is My California: Journeys by Great Writers. This is a collection of stories by writers, including Thom Steinbeck, from the California region, a celebration of culture and history which has the added distinction of being written to support the floundering California Arts Council.

California is the only state in the Union that has flourished beyond all expectations, primarily because it has always been all things to all people. And like the seduction of the Muses, she always appears in the garb of our own desires. 

– Thomas Steinbeck. 

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How’s that for a celebration of culture, a perfect example of the brilliance that can be achieved by writing what you know. 

So that’s what I’m asking you to do this November, take a look around at where you are and find a way to celebrate it. Where we were born, where we choose to live and every place in between has a huge part in shaping our lives, our personalities and our personal histories. So I guess what I am also asking is for you to share a bit about yourself.

What has had an impact on your life?

What resonates with you?

Tell us.

Submission Form_The Paperbook Collective

Email it to me at:

jayde.ashe@hotmail.com

IMG_6598An abandoned house on a street in my town. A cultural relic from a different era. 

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15 Comments

    • Thanks, that last photo is part of a series I’m working on 🙂 I have made a promise to myself to read more Dickens, perhaps over the Christmas holidays I’ll find the time!

  1. cross(stitch)yourheart says

    Love the post and tribute to Steinbeck and the writing advice.

  2. You know what? I think even writers of science fiction, fantasy and fairy tales “write what they know.” In fact, these genres record the human experience in ways that can render it even more intense than if it were simply recorded as “reality”. For example: my novel in progress is a hybrid of literary fiction and low fantasy. Half of it is set in heaven. But on nearly every page I see myself, my hopes, my fears – what I know – reflected, unconsciously and consciously. The themes are ones close to my heart; my protagonist’s inner journey is partly my own. I think we all write what we know; it’s just that what we know may not be as clear cut as a town or a subject matter or an explicit personal experience.

    • That’s very true belllettres, of course it is impossible for a writer, or an artist, photographer, poet etc. to create something that is completely devoid of themselves. Everything that we create is a reflection of ourselves because we ourselves have CHOSEN to create it. I was interpreting the statement ‘write what you know’ in a very literal sense, purely for the purposes of this post 🙂

    • No way! It is a very valid point and I’m glad you raised it because it then got me thinking, which is always a bonus on a Monday afternoon!

      Then I got thinking about the photographs I take, and the fact that lots of people would look at the exact same subject but take a very different shot. It’s the same with writing, which is why I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with for the culture issue 🙂

  3. Nice shot of an early Cannery Row, Jayde. I’ve hung out there a lot over the years… even made a point of reading some Steinbeck when I was in the neighborhood. The canneries are long gone, however. Most have become fancy restaurants. –Curt

    • It looks like a fascinating place, Curt, it’s definitely on my bucket list of literary places to visit. As you say I’m sure it looks nothing like the Cannery Row of Steinbeck’s novels now! But still very interesting for all that.

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