“Write what you know,” some say, while others recommend the opposite, or even “write what you knew, or thought you did.” I recently visited that prescription in a bit of seriously lightweight fiction I wrote (The White-Hole Situation, now available where e-books are free to download and/or pirate). I was a kid during the first generation of Star Trek, and a young adult during the next, and I got to know that world pretty well, well enough to riff on its larger implications, and it was fun to do, enjoyable writing if not meaningful, deep or otherwise significant in any way.
That bit of writing, combined with the concurrent death of Philip Roth and all the various “takes” on his life and work, I’ve been thinking about how writers mine the data of their own lives and the worlds they’ve experienced. Some writers do this far more than others. Philip Roth, for example, was of white upper-middle class east coast Jewish extraction, and I the same. His generation was my parents’ generation, so there’s that gap, but it would never have occurred to me to write the kind of fiction he wrote. In fact, I never liked his books or his writing and as an author he was only stock-on-the-shelf to me during my lengthy career in bookstores. He was a classic self-data-miner and an exemplary representative of his era of white male patriarchal misogyny and whatnot. I don’t see how there can be any argument about this. If you enjoyed his books then good, you’re the audience for them. If you didn’t then you’re not.
Data under-miners could be the reverse – writers who deliberately attempt to flee from the identities imposed on them from their surrounding culture, writers who feel they are not what they appear to be. Perhaps analogous to transgender individuals, whose inner identity is not pegged to their biological happenstance, some writers know in their heart who they are and that who they are is not who they are seen to be. Some will use pseudonyms as a way of dealing with the disconnect. Some will hide from the public, become reclusive so as not to be tied to the photo on the jacket of their books. Some will go further and lie about their identity, make up alter egos for their public life. Others will just go about the business of writing and not worry about all that.
In my case I’m pretty much the last case there, but I do wonder when people see my name on my books, and how some of them are science fiction, do they think I’m related to the famous Jacqueline Lichtenberg? (I am not). Do they think I am as Jewish as my name (and face) imply? (I am not). What else do they infer? That I am Caucasian (I am considered white in America these days, although my grandparents were not considered white in America when they were young), that I am male (I am), that I am probably cis-gendered (I am) though who knows, I could be gay. After all, I write, and that’s kind of arty, which is kind of gay (to a large swath of the populace). I’m pretty sure that data-mining my books would make it pretty clear that I am white and male (from my vocabulary, and the majority gender of my characters, though I do like to think I’ve done a decent job with my female characters, who are the protagonists in many of my books).
Textual analysis would probably come up with a decent portrait of me as a person, despite the fact that I’ve written almost nothing autobiographical or even much taken from my own life and background (Raisinheart and The Part-Time People are the only ones I can think of that even cast a shadow on my own history). It would not surprise me if the accuracy of such an analysis came close to one similar for Philip Roth, or for any writer. Whether we write what we know, or what we don’t know, or what we knew or what we thought we knew, in the end the “we” who writes is the “we” who we are, and that’s true even if you think you’re only a medium through whom the Holy Spirit is communicating its own soap opera.
It’s also made me think about what other influences I could dredge up, what else do I know as well that I could transpose onto another platform, that I haven’t done already. I’ve already done a bit of that with noir fiction (Death Ray Butterfly), and my Outlier series was a mashup of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and Freakonomics. You wonder just how much you can cannibalize (everything!) whether consciously or not. Are all writers mere data-miners of their histories, and/or how could it really be otherwise?
Some tropes I’m bound to ignore. I grew up on spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry but have absolutely no interest in writing anything shoot-em-up (Star Wars included in that genre), slice-em-up (as much as I liked samurai flicks) or yuk-it-up (how many sitcoms have I seen every episode of?).
When you start making a list of your childhood and youthful influences it can get downright discouraging as well as embarrassing!