Writing What You Know

Mary Biddinger explains the difficulty writers, and especially poets, have when following the old writing adage:

I think that the anxiety over family response is especially profound for poets. If my son were to publish a detective novel, for example, nobody would presume that the protagonist is the author himself, and ask me how Raymond learned to scale flying buttresses in pouring rain, or to track criminals in the woods like a half-wolf. However, if Raymond were to publish a volume of poetry about a man who develops a paralyzing fear of insects in his childhood, our friends and family might wonder how he managed to keep his terror at bay when catching lightning bugs, or walking through the butterfly atrium at the zoo. For some reason we presume poetry is autobiographical, and let fiction slide.

I blame some of this anxiety on the well-spread notion that we can only write exactly what we know. As a professor, I urge students to consider writing work that is emotionally autobiographical, but to feel free to release or re-envision some of the circumstances.