Another lesson in writing about what you know


I admit I majored in English Lit, and somehow I managed to miss wide swaths of literature: 1984 (we read Animal Farm instead), anything by Dostoyevsky (technically not English Lit but still on that list of Things You Oughta read if you’re a book person), and more than the slightest bit of Southern literature. So I was completely ignorant of Lee Smith before I picked up her memoir. Shame on me. Seriously – shame on me.

Dimestore is a book that does so many things. It lets Smith tell stories of her childhood home in a Virginia town nestled in the Appalachians. It talks about her life as a writer and the progress of her career. And – most crucially for other writers – it offers a glimpse into her writing process and philosophy. This quote is a particular gem, and one that I particularly appreciate as someone who chafes at the old saw “Write about what you know” being taken too literally:

Finally I had made that necessary imaginative leap – which is a real necessity, since most of us writers can’t be out there living like crazy all the time. These days, very few are the writers whose book jackets list things like bush pilot, big game hunter, or exotic dancer. No, more often we are English teachers. We have children, we have mortgages, we have bills to pay. So we have to stop writing strictly about what we know, which is what they always told us to do in creative writing classes. Instead, we have to write about what we can learn, and what we can imagine, and thus we come to experience that great pleasure Anne Tyler noted when somebody asked her why she writes, and she answered, “I write because I want more than one life.”

Lee Smith, “A Life in Books” from Dimestore

I love it! Go out there and learn! Imagine! Live all the lives you can!


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