"What You Didn't Know You Knew" by Paul Graham
“What You Didn’t Know You Knew”
Address given at Major Minor Night, September 30, 2012
This summer, I published my first book, a short story collection comprised of pieces I’ve written over the last ten years. Then I learned that within days of my book’s release, my publisher was closing. She had been diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was bad. The publishing company was good but very small, basically the effort of two women dedicated to literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. It may be one of the shortest print runs of all time.
When Amy Callahan asked me to talk about my book with you tonight, I realized I have the chance to make good of the situation. Instead of reading, I will talk with you about how I think books get written, how I came to write mine, and why, while it’s nice to sell books, what you learn in writing one is better. Since many of you are potential English majors, I will attempt to tie this into why an English major is valuable, and why writing and reading are not mere “subjects” but habits of mind our culture urgently needs. Perhaps I can fire you up. In fifteen minutes. So, you see, fate has made me just the fool for this particular fool’s errand.
A warning, in advance: There will be a quiz at the end.
If I were to ask you two rules of creative writing you might answer “Show, Don’t Tell,” and “Write What You Know.” You would get partial credit, but that would not be your fault. It’s ironic that advice on writing should come in clichés, when another rule is “avoid clichés.” The cliché I want to talk about is “Write What You Know”—what kind of knowledge we mean and what kind we don’t, and why it’s important to know what you don’t necessarily know you know (got that?).
As I write this talk, I know all kinds of things. I am, you might say, a nearly-bottomless well of useless information. I know that the hated Yankees are one game up on the Orioles; that maple trees change colors from top to bottom, and drop their leaves in the same order; I know how to cook just well enough to have an inflated ego; how to split and stack wood; and how to train a dog to track peanut butter cookies in the woods.
And I know, as well, that you’d rather not hear a story about any of these things, or, for that matter, anything else that’s knocking against the walls of the aquarium tank we’ll call my conscious mind.
Neither would I. And I don’t really want to hear about the effluvium in your aquarium tank, either.
Writers from Marcel Proust to Sven Birkerts have noted how each of us has both a voluntary and an involuntary memory. In the same way, we have voluntary and involuntary knowledge. Some things we know because we have consciously retained them; we remember them because someone has told us they are important, and has made threats, such as exams. We have learned them by rote. This type of knowledge is useful in context but provides, to the writer, a light like a struck match: small, flickering, and short-lived. It is perhaps the use of such knowledge—such a light—that explains in part why, when you try to write a story about any old detail you consciously know, the writing flares for a few paragraphs and then burns out. You need to find an accelerant to set off.
Other things we know, and remember, for more mysterious reasons. We have no idea why, years later, our minds have retained certain experiences, people, places, things. We have remembered them involuntarily, perhaps even against our wishes. These are things we know without even having tried to learn them. Nobody tested us on them; nobody said their retention was essential to live a responsible, middle-class American lifestyle. They simply stuck, often in spite of their inapplicability to a responsible, middle-class American lifestyle. We do not think about them all the time, either. Very often, a trigger sends them pulsating across our conscious minds: a taste, a smell, a sound. When this thing we know drifts from the shadows into our conscious mind, we briefly stand stupefied before it. If we have the alertness expected of artists we write this thing down. Other, similar memories often accompany it in time. We see that this knowledge is actually a question. It has a shape. If we’re smart, we contemplate that shape, though its meaning might confound or even threaten us. We accept the uncertainty even as we try to solve the mystery. That shape is the outline, the plot, of a story.
This is the kind of knowledge that writers should aim to use—these things that you know, but you have forgotten you knew them, maybe even never knew you knew them at all. It’s what the writer and crank, Flannery O’Connor, meant when she said, famously, that anyone surviving childhood has enough material to last a lifetime: not that you should write about your second grade teacher, or your vacations on the lake, or your bedroom, simply because you can remember every detail, and thus reproduce them authoritatively, but that by the time you’re a young adult, you’ve come to know about enough odd, tragic, comic, mysterious, and other types of human behavior to write a hundred stories. Certain of the things you have seen will give off a faint glow in your mind’s eye. You don’t know what, exactly, you know about them, only that something’s there. These are the things that can keep the creative fires burning long enough to fill a book. They are good material because they often contain psychological conflict and, just as important, mystery. Some urgency for the writer means suspense for the reader.
Now for that doomed book of short stories I wrote. About the time I reached my late 20s, I noticed I had such involuntary knowledge. To be specific, I noticed that my past was populated by men and boys of what I’ll call questionable moral compass. The men in my immediate family did not fit into this pattern, but it seemed a lot of other men did. Why my brain stored them I still do not know. Perhaps they were cautionary tales, the sort of people every boy’s mother is terrified he’ll become, which made them both intriguing and horrifying to me. I knew about men who were arrested; I knew about one boy who was kicked out of college for taking over the IT server and loading it up with porn; and a man who was dying of Hepatitis and dealt with it by manifesting a sick sense of humor. I knew an older, gay man who dealt with his self-repudiation by preying on the young men of the garden center he owned and sexually harassing them. I heard of another who was continually broke, bought vending machines, and received a late-night call from the Mob because they ran a vending-machine racket too. I heard about distant relatives who had to be dragged home from bars.
They all began to blend together. Each one led me to the next. They began to say something. These are the people who came to roam the stories in my book. They were not my people, but they were, for a time, my material.
It’s not like I wanted to spend time with them. But their presence in my memory bespoke important questions: about who they were and how they got that way, and what it says about us , who are supposedly so well-adjusted, and what it means, as well, for their wives and sons and daughters, their neighbors, their coworkers.
As I spent time with them, as I followed them while they made a mess of things, either because of their inability to control their impulses, or their bad habits, or their reluctance to admit their loneliness, their secret scars, their broken dreams, I found myself in a challenging place. I had to accept them as they were and relate their lives without irony or censorship. It wouldn’t do to speak over them. As they spoke I learned things about how we socialize boys into men, and girls into women; about the price of the expectations we put on ourselves and each other; and about how these expectations are pretty much the same from person to person, regardless of the place they came from, the class they belonged to, or the time in which they lived. A college kid in one of my stories who breaks into a funeral home and passes out in a coffin knows the desperation of a father in another story who is so emotionally exhausted that he stands by while an innocent man gets beaten behind a hockey arena. A young man trying to serve out his tour in Nottinghamshire in WWII is struggling with the same questions about courage as a woman who notices uncanny similarities between a contractor working on her house and an acquaintance’s nasty boyfriend.
You can call these tight circles “the human condition,” if you want, but that oversimplifies the deep and startling connections between us all. It also belies, with a cliché, the difficulty the artist faces in penetrating and doing something with it.
Before I close, I’ll say a word for those of us who do not write original literary pieces, but who instead respond to them critically. I feel the process is very much the same in that you will achieve the deepest, most insightful, most satisfying responses to literature, no matter by whom or when written, if you are able to work from that place deep with in you that contains your own idiosyncratic knowledge about the world: about mothers and sons, say, or fathers and daughters; about the search for god or the natural world; about science, or villainy, or philanthropy. The things you “know” will lead you to say the most; will fuel a comprehensive, even exhaustive search through the author’s words; will be the way that critical books, just like creative books—and good ones—get written. In the words of one of my graduate school teachers, “You’re writing about things you can write about; I want you to write about things you have to write about.” Like all worthy pursuits, this is harder than it sounds.
Publishing is a valuable and worthy goal in itself. A publication provides, after all, an objectively verifiable body of evidence as to the value of an English major for your parents! You may make a financial killing, but probably not. Far better, and far more rewarding, is to live a deep and dedicated process of observation and reflection. It is satisfying to join the conversation started and continued by writers you love; it is satisfying to write, on a good day, a sentence that would please George Eliot or William Faulkner or Tobias Wolff; and it is deeply humane, and humbling, and necessary, to learn about lives beyond the scope of your own , to explore human questions, to stave off xenophobia and live empathically, and to know, to really know, that you possess an answer to even one small problem.
Now, for the quiz : In the time you listened to this talk, a couple of involuntary memories revealed themselves to you. I’m certain they did, though perhaps they only stirred in your mind, like the fin of a trout brushing the membrane between the surface of a lake and the air.
Go. Write them down. Follow them. Fictionalize from them, or don’t. Take your time. They’re waiting to show you what you don’t know you understand.