Write what you know by Danielle Maisano
I never intended to write about my time in Togo. If I’m completely honest, The Ardent Witness began as a sort of exorcism of an experience that I couldn’t seem to let go of. Perhaps because I still needed to make sense of it. Early drafts of what later became my first novel started as a retelling of events, a way to remember a part of my life I was greatly mourning the loss of. I had always wanted to be a writer, starting out in journalism, wanting to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and others, but I naively believed that while my time as a community health worker in West Africa would prove invaluable as a life experience, it would never serve as source material for a book. Yet, as I began to write my story, I soon realized I could not truly convey the reality of what had happened by simply retelling it. It left too many things unsaid. So, slowly at first, I began to make the leap.
As writers we all draw on our own personal experiences, it is impossible not to. The subconscious could never be controlled to such an extent that our own prejudices and influences do not permeate the page, either subtly or not so subtly.
So, as a writer I have tried to live with two outwardly opposing mantras. They are both a bit cliché, but like most cliches they are used often because there is a ring of truth to them – ‘Write what you know’ and ‘Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s worth writing about.’
When I was in college finishing up my journalism degree the head of the department, an esteemed journalist himself and notoriously difficult professor, asked me during his office hours what sort of career I wanted for myself. I don’t know what made me do it but nervously I confessed that I only studied journalism as means to an end of gaining enough real-life experiences to write novels. That’s what I wanted. To be a novelist. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t say be realistic, as I’d partly expected. Instead he went over to his filing cabinet and handed me a printout of the essay by George Orwell entitled ‘Why I Write.’
In the essay, Orwell lists what he believes to be the four main motivations for becoming a writer – Sheer Egoism, Aesthetic Enthusiasm, Historical Impulse, and, finally, Political Purpose. While Orwell admits that most writers will be influenced, by varying degrees, to all four motivations, it is the last one that grabs both him and, on my better days, myself as a writer.
When I started writing my book without the vision of it becoming novel, I had just finished my MA in International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a lot of what I experienced in Togo was beginning to make more sense to me. What I had found most incredible was the way international development work tends to disregard a lot of the structural limitations and instead tends to emphasise individual responsibility. I suppose because doing so allows us to ignore the legacy of colonialism and the fact that there are still very tangible policies in place that perpetuate debt and inequality. Ignoring these things, also gives people coming from a more privileged background an excuse not to examine our privilege and where it comes from, the political policies that we benefit from, or the fact that our ‘developed’ economies are based off stolen wealth. It took some time, but I finally realised that the best way to convey these contradictions was through writing a novel.
The Ardent Witness is a political book and perhaps some are offput by the word political, but going back to Orwell’s definition, he explains that he uses the word in the “widest possible sense” describing it as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Whether or not you would call this motivation political, I believe it is the best source for determining what to write about. My advice in using one’s own experiences as inspiration is yes, write what you know, usually it’s the best place to start, but be aware of how it fits into your wider understanding of the world. The first draft is the space in which you are allowed to write it all out; the irrelevant, the indulgent, the cliched. Get through all that, just to finish it and then, hopefully, you are left with the beginnings of something bigger. Perhaps this is obvious advice, intuitive and unneeded. But writing is a long and difficult journey and sometimes it is the simplest things we lose sight of. I find that when I am the most stuck in my writing it is most often because I have forgotten the vision, the bigger picture I was trying to represent.