A few years ago, a student in my beginning fiction-writing class handed in a cave dweller story—the sort of story where the characters’ names all had the suffix -or (Cor, Zor, Exor). The men spend 20 pages fending off saber-toothed tiger attacks and the women spend the same 20 pages in caves, teaching their children to speak monosyllabically and warning them to stay away from fire.
It’s winter—it’s always winter—and they’re dressed in tiger skin bikinis and loincloths, which is maybe why the saber-toothed tigers are attacking them in the first place. The tigers successfully devour the women and children, because the cave men had, against all odds, figured out how to make bootleg liquor from native materials.
In any case, the cave men somehow made the liquor and drank it and were passed out drunk, so they were unable to save their prehistoric dependents from the saber-toothed tigers. The end.
This kind of story is why creative-writing teachers tell beginning fiction-writing students, “Write what you know,” and why you have to learn the rules of fiction writing before breaking them. This advice is feeble, because our students don’t know very much. We know they don’t know much because we were their age once and knew just as little.
But after reading a 20-page story in which Cor can’t make a decent fire or loin cloth (but is clever enough to invent the distillery) ends up doing shots of homemade Everclear and passes out in his own vomit while a fanged big cat has its way with his family, I’m ready to do anything—including giving my students what I know is feeble advice. And I would have done just that, except another student handed in a science-fiction story full of silver jumpsuits and hovercrafts, and still another handed in a horror story featuring a tooth fetishist with a dank cellar, knockout gas and pliers.
I asked myself, Where are they getting this stuff? Not from me. I was teaching literary short fiction. I realized then that my students were writing what they knew—and what they knew was science fiction, the western, detective fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear. My students were writing the genre fiction they knew.
It seemed I had two options. One: Tell them what they knew was all wrong and to go out and know something else. Or, two: Tell them that if they were hell bent on knowing, say, a western, they’d be better off knowing Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” or Donald Barthelme’s “The Indian Uprising” than whatever it was they already knew.
I still insisted their stories be literary—that they strive for and value complication, nuance, mystery; that they be intelligent without being knowing, bighearted without being sentimental—while at the same time learning that these qualities can be found in genre fiction. For the students interested in science fiction, I had them read (and mimic) Franz Kafka and Aimee Bender; for detective fiction, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; and for horror, Edgar Allan Poe, Kelly Link and Kathryn Davis.
Beginning fiction writers want to write what they know, and creative-writing teachers want them to know something better than what they already know. But our goals can be one and the same.
My students have greatly improved—even the woman who wrote about cave dwellers. I had her read George Saunders’ novella “Pastoralia” and asked her to rewrite her story with “Pastoralia” in mind.
She didn’t a change a thing, except for the moment when one of the cave children yells something at one of the other cave children and his mother says, “Use your cave voice.” True, the tiger still ate them, but at least it was a somewhat more satisfying meal.