‘Art Just Isn’t Worth That Much’

This week in the New York Times  Bookends, two writers Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison take on the question: Is it O.K. to mine real relationships for literary material?

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I find the short introduction an interesting story:

 When Robert Lowell used his ex-wife’s letters for his poetry, Elizabeth Bishop told him, “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

Similarly, Prose tells a little story about the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose memoir-novel “My Struggle” has been criticized for revealing too much about his close relatives. He says the question of whether a writer ought to use his family as material is akin to asking the question: Would you save the cat or the Rembrandt from the burning house?

He says we must save the cat, choose life over art.

This is an surprising answer from a writer who portrays his own family in such intimate detail, which also implies how tricky the question is for writers. It just might be impossbile to answer.

For me, the real life is much more complicated than fiction.  When my friends get back to me when they finish reading my stories, the last question I expect is “which part is real? ” I mean… where do I start? If I could write all my real life down, how relieved could I be?

 

 

 

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Should Writers Only Write What They Know?

 

Last week in New York Times’ column Bookends, two writers, Zoë Heller and Mohsin Hamid, discuss whether writers should stick to what they know.

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Zoe Heller

You should write what you really know — as opposed to a slick, bowdlerized version of what you know… For most writers, it actually takes a lot of hard work and many false starts before they are in a position to extract what is most valuable and interesting form their autobiographies.

Mohsin Hamid

It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.

For me, writing is like a circle. I started writing about people I hadn’t met and lives I hadn’t experienced, but the stories I came up with all went back to my own perception and observation of the world, in other words, what I know about the world.

For example, I wrote some stories about love. The characters were different, from high school students to migrant workers, but when two characters started to interact in my stories, one of them would keep quite silent, and the other one would be wondering all the time. This surprised me because I hadn’t thought I might write the same story again and again in different ways, and this was also frustrating because I didn’t know if I could write another story. So I thought about it, then I realized it was just the way I perceived love. Love is mystery.

So, it is not a choice for writers to choose whether they should write what know or write what they want to know, but a fact that what they know eventually defines what they write.