Write what you know. Isn’t that the one piece of advice that gets passed around like a hip flask, write what you know. It’s meant to be comforting, I think, it’s meant to be a solace to all those who want to write but have no idea, or think they have no idea, what to write about. Write what you know.
I don’t think it’s as simple as sitting down and transcribing your past or exploring your memories and slavishly transferring the details onto paper. We’re not all Proust or Knausgaard, and probably a good thing. Imagine us all fighting tooth and nail to get our story of the minutiae of our lives published ahead of someone else’s. Instead I think you have to use the ‘write what you know’ mantra with a little more subtlety. Let the details of your life flesh out what you’re writing; let the colour of your life add to the colour of your characters’ lives. Derek Raymond was never a detective in a forgotten department of the London Metropolitan Police, but he knew about those long dark nights of the soul, nursing a can of beer, contemplating the ugly futility of life and the struggle to find any shred of hope. Raymond Chandler likewise never worked as a Private Eye in LA but again he knew what it was to feel like a man out of time, a man holding to a long discredited code of conduct and faced with corruption at every turn. Even someone like Tolkien never travelled the trails of Middle Earth, I know, but knew his way around comfortable meals and tales told over pints of ale. Beckett never wandered a lonely void waiting for, well, you get it. It’s all about using what you know and see and adding this to the tapestry of your story.
I certainly know I have no intention of ever going down the autobiographical route. I spend more time with myself than anyone else and I know it’s not something anyone else is likely to ever want to read about.
Write where you know, now that’s more interesting. Can you use a specific place as a setting for a story, not just recount what it was like to live there, or grow up there, or a story your great-aunt Mary told you, no, use that place and entwine a fictional story into it. This is what I’ve had on my mind for a while.
You see, most of what I’ve written tends to be set either in the inner city of Dublin or in small Irish towns and villages that are usually an amalgamation of places I know well, either because I have relations there, friends there or had relations there who have since died. I seem to have avoided setting something in the town I grew up in so far, and I think that’s because I’ve never really figured out what the town I grew up in actually is.
To explain. For those who don’t know I grew up in a town called Leixlip around twelve miles from Dublin just over the border of Dublin in County Kildare. Up until the early 1970’s the town was really just a small village, basically just one street on what was then the main Dublin – Galway road. Nothing much had changed there in a hundred years or so and it was no different from any other village around Ireland. In the early 70’s, probably as a result of one of the temporary growth spurts we do so well in this country and with improved public transport, the village became a small town. This basically consisted of the small village now surrounding itself with housing estates, fairly non-descript estates with the differences only apparent to those who lived there. And it was into one of these estates that my parents moved after getting married and where they eventually raised me and my siblings. Our estate wasn’t unusual in its collection of houses and green spaces and looked exactly like any number of housing estates everywhere else. In one direction was the village of Leixlip and at the other end of the estate it was all just fields (since developed in our most recent property boom).
The place was, and is, a dormitory town. Growing up the only real industry I remember was a meat processing plant (now replaced on the same site by a factory making printer cartridges). I remember in primary school during warm weather when the wind blew a certain direction we’d have to close all the windows to keep out the smell. Most parents that worked travelled into Dublin to do so and growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was always a fair smattering of employed and unemployed parents around, there was never really a sense of one part of town being all that much better than another, we were all just in the same shite together.
My problem with the place when it comes to writing something now is that it was always somewhere defined in relation to something else. For anyone in Dublin being from Leixlip meant I was a culchie, for anyone from the rest of Kildare, and the country beyond it, I was a Dub. Neither really applied, and that’s appropriate for the town too. It was always in that no-mans-land between town and country, it’s in that bland commuter belt that says everything and nothing. Growing up that didn’t really register all that often, playing football matches against others (other Kildare towns in GAA, as we were in the County Kildare leagues, and other Dublin schools as we were included in the Dublin region for schools sports) you would be slated as either a Dub or a culchie depending on the opposition. Meeting cousins from counties Tipperary and Clare usually resulted in the question ‘How are things up in Dublin?’ In either case it was always difficult to put your finger on what, and where exactly, Leixlip was but as myself and my friends and family all grew up there it didn’t really matter.
Later on as the sphere of people I know expanded it became a question I couldn’t answer. People from Dublin seemed to have a well-defined sense of where they were and where they were from, talking about different schools or sporting clubs. In my case I went to the only school in the town and when I did play sports it was in the only club in the town, the idea of being part of something else just didn’t seem to exist. Likewise, and something that struck me more, were people from other towns in Ireland. But these seemed to be very strange towns, towns where people seemed to know who they were, had a character and an identity. It was here that the identity-void at the heart of my own home town crept up on me.
The town really was just a small village and housing estates, all the big supermarkets were in neighbouring towns, we didn’t have a swimming pool (and possibly still don’t) and the idea of even a cinema was laughable.
As I said, my home town is, in essence, a small village street surrounded by housing estates, and that’s basically it (with the addition in later years of a couple of large multinationals) where nearly everything seems geared to getting you into Dublin as quickly and as easily as possible, roads, rail, shops, colleges, jobs. Even after all this time I still can’t put my finger on exactly what my home town is. I could call it a dormitory town for Dublin but that still doesn’t seem enough, what is the place, what are the characters of the people there like in relation to people from other places?
I don’t want to get all psychogeographical on the subject but what does growing up and living in a town like this do to you, especially in comparison to someone from somewhere else?
So this is where the writing comes back in. I’ve decided that my next attempt at writing a novel will be set in a (slightly) fictionalised version of my home town. This isn’t my way of settling any scores or having a go at people who pissed me off, just seeing how a story set in somewhere like this will differ from a story set in either a city or small rural town or village setting. Again it’ll be a crime story and I already have the first few threads of the plot worked out, just need to put more work into it and start getting something down on paper. I’ll start this when I’ve finished my revisions on my previous effort and have sent enough of it out to agents and publishers and I’m in that hole between submissions and when the rejections start to land, as opposed to the long silences from others who can’t be bothered with a cut-n-paste rejection email, ah well.
I’m always wary when people say a particular book is an attempt to explore something, specifically it it’s an attempt to explore a larger social point. I worry that if you set out to explore something you lose sight of trying to write a good book. The vogue in Ireland over the last few years has been the idea that someone needs to write the great novel of the end of the Celtic Tiger. Many have tried and posterity will be the judge of whether any have succeeded. My own theory is that the good novels are those where a particular theme being explored is something that came about subconsciously, or even accidentally. A good writer setting a story in the here and now will explore these events but will let the story take its course without the supposed theme overpowering him or her. I do think it’s only after the fact that someone can say such and such a theme is being explored, leave that to the reviewers and the commentators.
I do intend my own exploration alright but it’s a personal thing I suppose, so whether it fails or succeeds it’ll do so only as a story, not as a contemplation on whatever, blah, blah, blah.
I’ve always loved history and live in the inner city of Dublin and know that the street I live on dates back to almost medieval times. I know from photographs that the development I live in replaced earlier slums which grew out of houses built in what was known as the Dutch-Billy style possibly brought over by Huguenot settlers. I can walk around the city and think about what happened on each street and what they once looked like, who lived and who died. The land the house I grew up in was built on had formerly been farmland and had probably always been farmland. The patterns of old field boundaries were still visible around the estate from older trees that hadn’t been removed or front walls that would occasionally subside as they were built over incompletely filled in ditches. That space had been a blank before the houses arrived.
So no matter where I am now or where I’ll be in the future I’ll always be a child of the suburbs, that peculiar no-mans-land between the two major forces of Irish life, the city and the country. I don’t know if it means much, if anything, but I’ve felt it as a gap in nearly everything I’ve tried to write so like a scab I have to start picking at it. And like picking at a scab it’ll most likely make things worse but fuck it, it’ll annoy the shit out of me if I don’t.
Beckett drew heavily on his own life. It’s just he edited most of it out by the final draft. Waiting for Godot is actually based on personal experience, his time in the resistance. Hugh Kenner writes, “Godot is a play about the Resistance; the characters have code names, are regularly beaten by the Gestapo, and continually await their assignments.” There isn’t an author out there who doesn’t draw on his or her own life experiences but only a few go down the autobiographical—or even semi-autobiographical—route. We don’t necessarily write what know but we do write out of what we know. I write to find out what I know. I’m sometimes surprised by what I know but since what ends up on the page originated in my head how can I say I didn’t know it? I just didn’t know I knew it. Or at least—and this is the important bit—I didn’t know how to articulate what I knew. In each of my novels there comes a moment when it suddenly dawns on me what I’m actually writing about. I’m no plotter; I feel my way through a novel. In Milligan and Murphy—a novel that owes a debt of thanks to Beckett incidentally—it was when I wrote the line, “There are no reasons for unreasonable things.” Suddenly everything made sense to me. Not everything has a reason behind it (at least not an intellectual reason) and much of the time we do stuff simply because we feel like it. Now that may not seem like the most profound of truths but this was the moment I took ownership of it. It was like the day I worked out that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. It doesn’t matter that some bloke called Pythagoras came to that conclusion a couple of thousand years before I did. It was new to me.
Place is important to many writers. Although Beckett spent most of his life outside of Ireland Ireland certainly never left his writing and I’ll be honest his words always sound a little better to me when recited in an Irish accent, especially Godot which it’s easy to forget was originally written in French. The skull in Connemara, for example, was never in the original text. This passage from Lucky’s speech is given in the French text as “la tête en Normandie.” (There’s a good essay on the play here.) In many respects Godot is an amalgam of what Beckett experienced in both Ireland and during the war in France so, yes, it’s terribly autobiographical but he strips all of that way especially any sense of place.
I’m not heavily influenced by place. I have written a few stories in a Glaswegian accent and two of my novels are set in Glasgow but that was purely for convenience and I’m pretty sure I never actually mention the name of the city. It’s not important. In the first book most of the action takes place in a park—and that park could be anywhere—and in the second it’s within a flat (which is laid out much like the one I’m sitting in right now)—but that flat could be anywhere. I tend to agree with the artists Gilbert and George who said, in an interview with Mark Lawson, “[W]e’d never want to go and see another city [other than London where we live] because everything is in the brain. We don’t need to see beautiful mountains, beautiful villages … We don’t have to be inspired by the Pyrenees or Egypt because, for us, it is all in the brain inside.” (I quote them at the end of my article A Country Road. A Tree. Evening. in which I talk at length about writers and their sense of place.)
I’ve only been to Dublin once—in May 2004 when I was researching Milligan and Murphy—but it was a bit of a disappointment. The place was full of workers from the Continent. Where were all the ruddy Irishmen? That’s what I wanted to know. I didn’t visit Foxrock. Probably should’ve. If I do go back I’ll probably try Limmerick or Castlebar (I know a fellow writer there.)