Write what you know or like

Austin Kleon posted some quotes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which included the oft-said “write what you know” advice:

Write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?

This sets off one of my peeves in the comments, where I express the concern for too many works about depressed youths, too many novels and writers, too many comics about comic artists (I’ve been guilty of all in the past). Austin was quick to find a relevant quote from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (which I haven’t looked at in years):

The writer writes well about what he knows because he has read primarily fiction of this kind–realistic fiction of the sort we associate with The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, or Harper’s. The writer, in other words, is presenting not so much what he knows about life as what he knows about a particular literary genre.

This idea of writing what you know as a product filtered through genre seems of possible relevance to the genre of autobiographical comics. How many are filtered through the lens of Crumb, Pekar, Porcellino, or Chester Brown? Poor second hand copies of those who defined the genre. This is where work like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (my review) stands out so much, I think, because it treads outside those paths. It is less everyday, soul bearing, expression, and more a constructed narrative that goes beyong a direct telling of events/feeling.