Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Write What You Know



That’s the old adage, right? By and large, I am a believer in this philosophy. From setting to character, I tend to stick fairly close to things I’ve either experienced or studied extensively. At the very least, I write about things that interest me. For instance, I will probably never write a western because I cannot remember the last time I stayed awake long enough to read or watch one. I can’t even make it through Unforgiven. Oh, wait—I did manage to watch Legends of the Fall one or two million times, but that was mostly because of the. . .er, scenery. Anyway, the point is that most of the writers I know tend to write about familiar things.

But what happens when those familiar things are a little too personal? This in itself is a very personal question for me because I’ve recently started a project that is very close to my heart. A few years ago, I spent some time living in working in St. Petersburg, Russia and I loved every minute of it. (Except perhaps the minutes spent trying to make my cleaning lady understand that I didn’t want her to throw out the miscellaneous scraps of paper piled on my desk.) I came back to the States under protest and pouted for at least six months before I decided that living in Boston wasn’t really all that bad. At the very least, Boston has salad bars consisting of more than iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. But Russia in general and Petersburg in particular still have a special place in my heart (wow, that was corny) and for a long time I simply couldn’t think or write about it without getting incredibly homesick. There is an unread book in my collection right now that I’ve picked up and put down at least a dozen times because it takes place just before the 1917 revolution and is set in the neighborhood where I lived—it’s terrible; I know what’s about to happen to my beloved city and I cannot bear to read about it.

Recently, however, I’ve felt the itch. You know, that faint longing somewhere in the back of your mind that begs you to write about __________. For me, this time, the itch has been to write about Petersburg. I suppose enough time has passed now that it’s not so intensely personal and my homesickness has subsided a bit. So about a week ago, while I was home for the Christmas holidays, I sat down and started writing a story set there. It’s been a great experience so far. As my heroine discovers the city, I am remembering my own first reactions to this place that has meant so much to me over the past few years. I remember how dazzled I was the first time I saw Nevskii Prospekt at night, and how I sat at the window of my office every evening for a week to watch the sun set over the Neva. I remember how I’d sometimes start to forget the huge division between rich and poor in the city and then I’d turn a corner and see a homeless person huddled in the doorway of a posh boutique. I remember finding a place in the expat community there, and how for a while my entire social circle was made up of voluntary exiles like me. And I remember when I finally dropped my inhibitions and made friends with Russians, and how they took me into their families without hesitation.

I don’t know how much of this will make it into the book, but I’m sure some of it will spill into my heroine’s consciousness because—wait for it—I’m writing what I know. And at the moment, it feels great.

3 Comments:

Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

Gorgeous picture! I want to go... Have I mentioned how excited I am that you're doing this? (Not that I haven't been nagging you for a "Russian book" for years now.)

N.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Barbi Kremen said...

Go for it! I love listening to you talk about Russia and your feelings for the people and the place. I think it will make an excellent setting that will be treated with love.

Barbs

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...

I will be SO excited to see this project when it's done :) And I'm so excited that you're doing it (and that you're finally feeling ready to do it!)

And I love this blog! Have I mentioned that? LOL!

1:17 AM  

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