Wednesday, 20 May 2009

How do I know what I know?

Pandababy reviewed The Stars Blue Yonder by Sandra McDonald recently. It’s a fantasy set in Australia. I’ve read a few fantasies set in Australia, and this one sounds good, but normally I avoid them. To me, Australia is too ordinary to be interesting. Pandababy, on the other hand, is fascinated by Australia and Australians. What is ordinary to me is exotic to her and vice versa.

This led me to think some more about the old “write what you know” maxim. I’m a “virtual” traveller. I love to read stories that immerse me in some foreign culture or historic time. Bring on the geishas, the slave plantations of the deep South, bring on the Mongol hordes or the denizens of Edinburgh, or Toronto, or New Delhi – anywhere, really, except here. When I read I want to be transported to another place, to experience another way of life. I guess that’s why I like fantasy so much. It doesn’t get much further from reality than dragons and magic and impossible quests.

I can see, of course, that to someone who doesn’t live here, Australia is just as exotic and enchanting as these other places are to me. I can see that if I wrote “Australian” stories they could be fascinating to someone else, though they might seem “ordinary” to me. The problem would be determining what exactly gave them that Australian flavour.

Assume that I’m not talking about a story full of kangaroos and Uluru and the Sydney Opera House, the very obviously “Australian” things. I just mean a regular kind of story, with an Australian feel that makes it different to an American/Canadian/Indian-feeling story. If I write what I know, how do I know what’s “Australian” and what’s something everybody knows? To me, what I know is just “life”. Not having lived anywhere else, I don’t know which parts of that life are particularly Australian, and which are universal.

Confused yet? Let me give you an example. I’ve just discovered Joshilyn Jackson’s hugely entertaining blog, Faster than Kudzu. I’ve been visiting her blog every day for the last few weeks, laughing myself silly at her sense of humour, but every day I stared at that blog title and went “what the??” .

Kudzu. Maybe some kind of martial art? Or some fiendishly difficult mental game like sudoku? Finally it got too much for me and I googled it. Apparently it’s some kind of super-plant that infests all the southern states of America. In peak growing season it can grow a foot a day. My eyes were nearly falling out of my head reading about it. You’re kidding! People have to shut their windows at night to keep this stuff out? And it’s called “mile-a-minute” plant??? Wow! That’s so amazing!

So here I am, oohing and aahing over a noxious weed that probably every five-year-old in America knows about. The “faster than kudzu” reference now becomes clear – a reference that to Jackson needed no explanation, because it’s part of her “ordinary” landscape, but to me was impossibly foreign.

Once the Carnivore and I were taking some visiting Americans around town. He suggested they might enjoy a wander through the Botanical Gardens and a stickybeak at the harbour.

One of them looked alarmed at this. “Er … my wife doesn’t drink.”

He thought “stickybeak” meant something like “to wet your beak” and the Carnivore was suggesting we go for a drink. To "have a stickybeak at" means to look at something. Till that moment I hadn’t realised it wasn’t a universal expression.

So when I’m writing, how do I write what’s uniquely Australian? How do I know what my kudzu is?

Not that I’m getting my knickers in a twist over it (is that an Australian expression or not?). It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. To write what I know, first I have to know what I know that’s different from what everyone else knows. It sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. “A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox …”


  1. Thank you for linking to my review, Marina! So true I like to read about Australia - and all the rest of the places on your list too - but yes, I do just think Aussies are special. But I don't know what "Uluru" is, and never heard of "stickybeak" either.

    People hear say 'Don't get your panties in a twist'. Knickers? That's different.

    My husband and sometimes say to each other "No worries, mate" when we are getting anxious about something, as a way to remind ourselves to relax. We don't know if Aussies are really more relaxed than Americans, but it sounds so upbeat and good we have adopted it. We used to tell each other "Don't sweat the small stuff", but we like the Aussies version better.

    I think if you just write about your 'ordinary' days, that you cover what is different without having to work at it. Like kudzu.

  2. Absolutely right Marina.

    I find it difficult to write about Australia and use our slang because I know non-Australians won't understand.

    I have lived abroad and spent some time explaining slang to puzzled locals.

    Nor do I read many Australian Authors - to my everlasting shame - because, well, this is where I live. I'm much more interested in other places, and write about them.

    Is there something wrong with us? A different kind of cultural cringe perhaps? Or genuine Aussie blindness to the magical land we live in?

    Oh, and Panda? Uluru is Ayer's Rock, the world's largest monolith outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

  3. "if you just write about your 'ordinary' days, you cover what is different without having to work at it"

    You're right, of course, Pandababy -- it's just hard to escape that feeling of "but this is so ordinary, it's too boring to write about"! Although if I'm honest, the dragons and magic and so on that I love to write about are just window-dressing. What really interests me are the dynamics between the characters, and human nature is pretty universal!

    Jaye, you may be on to something with the cultural cringe idea. It's hard, for instance, to drum up much excitement about Australian history, which has always bored me rigid. It's hard to be impressed by 200-year-old buildings when you can see 2,000-year-old ones in so many other places in the world. Other places' history and culture seem so much fuller than ours.