Gore Vidal on “write what you know”

From time to time, I have had mixed feelings about Gore Vidal.  The man was, on occasion brilliant (Julian; his essays), but also had a streak of cynical elitism that sometimes put me off.  That said, I want to shout “HIP HOORAY for his statement at the end of his essay, “Thomas Love Peacock:  The Novel of Ideas,” published in the New York Review of Books, December 4, 1980.  Vidal wrote:

…write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all.  Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect:  that is the only way out of the dead end of the Serious Novel which so many ambitious people want to write and no one on earth–or even on campus–wants to read.

Vidal began this essay finding fault with the American idea of the “Serious Novel,” stating, “…for Americans, sincerity if not authenticity is all-important; and requires a minimum of invention,” and “During the last fifty years [fifty years before 1980, when he wrote this–but also largely true today, I think], the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life.  It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good. … Irony and wit are unknown while the preferred view of the human estate is standard American…For some reason, dialogue tends to be minimal and flat.”

Vidal suggests that to salvage the novel form, a tactic that might work is to infiltrate the genre forms.  “To fill them up, stealthily, with ideas, wit, subversive notions… .”  To some degree, in the years since Vidal wrote those words, so-called genre novels have done so. (eg. Walter Moseley’s work; much of Stephen King’s work–the metaphor of IT, for example; and most certainly, the short stories of Connie Willis which I have recently been reading).

For Vidal’s term, “Serious American Novel,” I might substitute the term “Literary Novel.”  I’m not sure when that latter term was coined, but I suspect it was after 1980.  In any event, there is a difference between a literary novel and true literature.  I believe it is that difference to which Vidal was speaking.


Uses of Setting; Example: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

Like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of WrathRobert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men begins with several pages of description.  Penn Warren’s pages are not quite as directly metaphoric for the theme of his story as are Steinbeck’s opening pages of The Grapes of Wrath. (See September’s post.)  Rather, Penn Warren carries one along using run-on sentences to create a sense of speed and a strong first person voice–that of Jack Burden, a reporter working for Louisiana governor Willie Stark. He is in a car with the governor and his entourage, driving to Stark’s home town, Mason City.  It begins:

“… You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right from wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive.  But you won’t make it, of course…
“…But if you wake up in time and don’t hook your wheel off the slab, you’ll go whipping on into the dazzle and now and then a car will come at you steady out of the dazzle and will pass you with a snatching sound as though God-Almighty had ripped a tin roof loose with his bare hands…”

From there, Penn Warren goes into descriptions of what one passes on the ride, using that to show the changes over time of the society:

“There were pine forests here a long time ago but they are gone.  The bastards got in here and set up the mills and laid the narrow-gauge tracks and  knocked together the company commissaries and paid a dollar a day and folks swarmed out of the brush for the dollar and folks came from God knows where, riding in wagons with a chest of drawers and a bedstead canted together in the wagon bed, and five kids huddled down together and the old woman hunched on the wagon seat with a poke bonnet on her head and snuff on her gums and a young one hanging on her tit…Till, all of a sudden, there weren’t any more pine trees.  They stripped the mills.  The narrow-gauge tracks got covered with grass.  Folks tore down the commissaries for kindling wood.  There wasn’t any more dollar a day. The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers and broadcloth on their backs.  But a good many of the folks stayed right on, and watched the gullies eat deeper into the red clay.  And a good handful of those folks and their heirs and assigns stayed in Mason City.”

…”That was the way it was the last time I saw Mason City, nearly three years ago, back in the summer of 1936.”  The narrator then goes on to describe the different characters riding in the governor’s entourage.

After one has read the entire novel, the descriptions of going off the road or waking up in time to stay on it can be seen as foreshadowing Jack Burden’s journey throughout the story–and, on some level, Willie Stark’s as well.  Penn Warren’s description of changes in the landscape, of who came and made a profit on it, and who was left behind, tells us much about Willie Stark’s roots, the kind of man he is and, perhaps, what in his background made him that way.

The point:  setting rarely just describes scenery or sets a scene or mood to prepare us for the entrance of characters onto a stage.  At its best, it is integrally connected to the development of character and theme.  (Note:  this is not to say that it is done consciously, or in a calculated fashion, which could make such description feel forced.  But if the setting fits the story well, it may quite naturally supply these other connections.)

Uses of Setting–Example: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

When it comes to long descriptions of setting, I tend to react like Alice:  what’s the use of a book without pictures or conversation?

That said, I’ve been examining chapter one of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which contains two and a half pages (seven long paragraphs) of description of the landscape and the weather before any humans come into it–and he keeps my interest throughout.

  How does he do it?

The language has a poetic beauty.  But that is not the key.  Rather, it is his use of verbs and adverbs to give weather, plants, and tools life–some examples (emphasis added):

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.  The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks…The sun flared down on the growing corn…The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try anymore…the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

And a little further in:

During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

Here, the vagaries of weather and nature are not used merely to set a scene or mood but presented as characters that act.  Phrases like the wind “dug cunningly” or the stalks “settled wearily” suggest intention–a struggle between elements.  In presenting his Oklahoma setting this way, Steinbeck sets us up to feel the emotional connection of the tenant farmers to the land–for them, it is a living, but also something more than just land, or just a living–and therefore to understand the largeness of their catastrophe when the land does not produce and they are thrown off of it.


the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards

I recently was a juror judging student submissions for the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards.  To read more about that experience and how you might do the same, read my post on the Awards on Potomac Review’s Blog!



Not long ago, I was listening to  Krista Tippet’s National Public Radio show, On Being.  Tippet was interviewing Joy Ladin, a transgender individual, about her journey between genders.  Ms. Ladin discussed her acute observations of the outward ways in which gender is expressed–of her need, before coming to terms with her inner self, to model the observed masculine and avoid what she thought was feminine and then, when she made the change from male to female, the need consciously to observe and model the outward ways  in which women move and express themselves. (As an example, she noted her observation that women tend to use their hands when speaking and men tend not to.)

I know very little about transgender issues (other than the threat to transgender people by those who hate).  I would never be so presumptuous as to write about the matters they must deal with emotionally, psychologically, physically, or societally, and I have not raised the Joy Ladin interview here in order to do so.  (I do recommend that people listen to the interview, linked above, to gain some insight.)  But, while it makes perfect sense that, in Ms. Ladin’s circumstances, she looked to outward cues to determine how to pass or function as one gender or the other in society, it troubles me that society creates such narrow strictures of what constitutes masculinity and femininity.  And, as I listened to Ms. Ladin speak, it reminded me of how these strictures tend to affect even the ways in which writers deal with characters in fiction.

Some writers express insecurity about writing from the point of view of the opposite sex.  I am reminded of one male author’s delighted amazement at my ability to embody male as well as female characters in my novel, Tinker’s Damn.

I am also reminded of a prospective agent’s reaction to another novel of mine in which the female protagonist was an IRA bombmaker trying to get a former cohort to observe a truce with the British.  That agent asked:  Does she ever wear a dress?  Does she ever think about marriage or wish she had children? –As if, in the middle of an encounter that will affect world events, the character should stop and ruminate on wearing dresses and having kids?  Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote the novel was to create a female counterpart to the male anti-heroes of the genre–someone of tough mind and integrity, and an ability to handle hairy situations.  Why, in an international thriller, should such a female protagonist, any more than her male counterparts, spend time considering  her personal domestic issues?

When, in irritation, I mentioned the agent’s questions to a writer-friend who happens to be a Lesbian, she replied, “well, you could just go all the way and make her a Lesbian.”  I’m sure this was an off-hand reply, meant either with a bit of humor or without giving great thought to it.  But, I have wondered since whether my friend realized that her statement was feeding into a stereotype of what it is to be gay or straight, as well as male or female.

There are all these exasperating myths out there of what it is to be manly or womanly:  men like to fight, women like to talk; women are the nurturers, men are the aggressors; men want to solve problems, women want someone to just listen; men are logical, women are intuitive.

I believe that our common humanity comes FIRST.  The rest are just trappings and societal constructions.  Fiction can reflect and reinforce these trappings and constructions, or it can be a tool to change them.  And not only by writing stories about characters fighting the strictures society places upon them, but by creating characters that, by their mere existence, defy those societal definitions.  (To paraphrase the film Field of Dreams, if you write them, they will come?)

I believe that human motivations are universal.  You can create any kind of man and any kind of woman and still have them be believable so long as you capture the essential humanity that will govern their response to their given circumstances.

Humanity comes before gender.


I just finished taking an introduction to acting class at The Theatre Lab on Eighth Street near Gallery Place.  The instructor’s lessons in how an actor approaches a script also serve as good advice for someone writing fiction–perhaps more applicable to plays, but definitely applicable to novels and short stories as well.  Here is his advice for acting:

1. examine the “given circumstances;” that is, the conditions that exist and events that occur before the play begins, and the conditions and events that will presumably occur after the play’s end (as well, of course, as examining the events occurring in the story (ie., on stage);

2. determine the various characters’ super-objectives (what is the large thing they want all through the play?);

3.  determine each character’s immediate objective in each scene.  (The principle is that in any given scene, each person wants something from the other, something that he or she wants the other to do.  The something must be tangible, although it may be very small, and may represent something intangible.  In a play, it must be something the audience can see.  And, of course, one does not necessarily get what they are after–that’s what presents the conflict necessary to drama );

4.  determine each character’s tactics or strategy (the small actions we take to try to obtain the objective; eg., flattery, bullying, bargaining, etc.); and

5. for each line, ask not how one says the line, but why one is saying it.  (The how will ultimately arrive from an examination of that question.)

Although these precepts are meant for an actor’s interpretation of a script, I think they can also, with small adjustments, serve the novel and story writer well, most especially in revision.  Items #1 and #2 are a given.  But novice writers can get lost in a scene, lose the sense of what a character most immediately wants from the other character, and how that relates to the character’s super-objective and fits into the whole of the story.  Keeping items #3, #4, and #5 in mind can help the writer sharpen such scenes.



When I was a child, I NEVER liked to watch horror movies or read horror stories.  (And yes, I am treating film on an equal footing with written stories here.  After all, film is also, in part, a written art-form.)  I did not like to be scared, or be kept awake at night in fear of things that I knew were imaginary but that gave me the willies nevertheless.  Fairly recently, however, I discovered the pleasure of watching horror movies on television where, now that I am well into adulthood, they do not scare, but amuse or interest me.

I much prefer the horror stories based on the idea of the supernatural since I don’t really believe in them.  I generally dislike the ones about mad killers or stalkers because their existence in the world is more plausible.  Even worse are the so-called slasher films apparently based only on a celebration of sadistic gore, which might encourage such in the real world.  Yick and eek.  That said, a couple of years ago, I finally watched Psycho and was fascinated to find it as much a crime/mystery story as a horror film, with an almost O’Henry-like twist when the Janet Leigh character is killed only after she decides to do the right thing (return the money).  And the shower scene was much less frightening to me than it had been when shown alone in clips or trailers.  This year, I even allowed myself to catch the tail end of Halloween, and most of The Nightmare on Elm Street (on T.V.), without ill effect.

Every year now, as a run-up to Halloween (one of my two favorite holidays, the other being St. Patrick’s Day–non sequitur: did you know that Halloween is also Samhain, the Celtic New Year?), I spend October watching whatever classic horror films I can find, usually on Turner Classic Movies.  [Another aside:  the first year that I did so, I was tickled to find that Buffy the Vampire Slayer had, in its very first year, toyed very playfully and creatively with almost all of them.]

In honor of today (October 31st), I shall briefly list some tropes and devices, natural and supernatural with which writers of the horror genre play:

1. “A basket full of kisses for a basket full of hugs”:  variations on The Bad Seed (the sociopath who is charming and takes people in, but will kill to get what he or she wants; often presented, as in Poison Ivy or some of the Babysitter films, as the outsider who inveigles his or her way into a family in order to replace one of its members);

2. “Enquiring minds want to know”:   variations on Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Frankenstein or The Fly (the  scientist who becomes obsessed unto madness by his pursuit of experiments that the scientific community does not accept as valid, or whose experiments go awry, endangering himself and everyone else);

3. “Curiosity killed the cat”:  variations on Pandora’s box (someone uncovers a long lost artifact or totem with dangerous properties attached to it–could be a poison; could be a curse; could be a spirit let loose);

4.. ..But why will you say that I am mad?”:  variations on The Tell Tale Heart or The Turn of the Screw (stories that turn, ultimately, on whether the protagonist is the victim of supernatural happenings or losing their mind.  Eg. In Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand, a murderer is certain he is being threatened with vengeance by the man he killed while doctors explain it as physical illness.  Is it physical illness brought on by his guilty conscience or truly the hand of his victim?);

5.   “That’s the thing about prophecies–they’re tricky…”:  A prophecy is usually subject to misinterpretation.  Greek myths about the oracles, and even Shakespearean plays (eg. Macbeth) are rife with prophecies misinterpreted or misunderstood by those who hear them.  This prophecy problem is plainly referenced in the first season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy goes below to meet the Master because of a prophecy that she will do so.  But, he informs her that prophecies are tricky–if she had not come down, he could not go up into our world.  Also, though the prophecy also states that, in the encounter, she will die, Xander revives her with CPR, and she then confronts and defeats the Master–who, apparently, has also not taken account of the trickiness of prophecies;

6. Vampires, zombies, cat people, werewolves:  Zombies seem to me to be rather one-dimensional entities with not so much room for character development.  Admittedly, my viewing or reading of this genre has been minimal.  But the definition of a zombie–“a will-less and speechless human capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally re-animated”–would support my view.  Vampires and zombies  are very popular these days.  Though vampires have been somewhat more interesting than zombies, in my opinion both have—or should have–reached a point of over-saturation and subside for other tropes.  Ditto the werewolves (except for Oz, of course!)  But mine seems to be an opinion of one.

As presented on film, Vampires, cat people, and werewolves have a psycho-sexual context–the animal within us–that keeps them somewhat interesting.  Though it would be more so if those that used them created some new interesting play with them rather than repeating over and over the same basic story.

There are many other tropes–the haunted house (or apartment, or old hotel); the spirit that calls one; spiritual possession requiring exorcism  etc.  The most interesting of these, I think, are those that are somewhat ambiguous, applying a psychological or philosophical underlay.  (I found the Exorcist interesting not because of the horror but because of the priest’s struggle concerning his faith.  Of course, I first saw it in black and white on a six by eight inch t.v. screen.)

Those that I find the least interesting are the attackers–be it Michael Myers or Freddy, who, like the Terminator, are machine or machine-like in that no matter how many times you do something that should kill them, they just won’t die and keep on coming.  It may work in the moment to scare, but it is a cheap way to do so, without much more than that visceral fright to make it interesting.

There is much more that could be said or analyzed, but I have been tippling as I wrote the last part of this—my own unusual but pleasant and quiet Halloween celebration–along with much consumption of dark chocolate.  And so I will end my post here and go off to watch the remainder of horror movies at my disposal this evening.

Happy Halloween.

p.s.  Alfred Hitchcok (whose horror has extensive psychological undertones) and Stephen King (whose works have extensive sociological undertones) would require entirely separate and extended posts for which, at the moment, I have neither time nor sufficient sobriety to address… .   😉