Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A professor comes into a classroom one day preparing to teach an undergraduate class on religious poetry. A list of names of professional linguists is on the chalkboard, left over from a previous class. The professor draws a box around these, and when the class comes in, says the boxed words on the board are a religious poem, and asks the students to interpret it. The class does so, with a number of interesting permutations and interpretations, to the professor’s interest (and perhaps, a degree of sadistic delight). Thus, by the end of the class, the students have managed to perform a literary analysis on what is essentially a checklist of personal names.
For those of you blessedly free of past readings in literary analysis and theory, this is the basic setup of a famous essay by sometimes controversial professor and literary theorist Stanley Fish, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” Fish draws several points and conclusions from this setup, which he himself did in the early 1970s, but when I first read this essay, the conclusion I drew was one that I had reinforced several times in my academic career: the more you bring as a reader and thinker to a literary work, the more you will get out of it. After all, the ability to recognize patterns and create inferences is a fundamental part of what humans do as thinking creatures.
There is a corollary to this, which may be more important to writers as artists: the more you can bring to the table as a writer, the more your readers will likely have to work with. This is why it behooves you, the writer, to have not only a number of tools in your toolbox—characterization, plot, dialogue, rhythm, style—but also the facility to use those tools well. However, in this case, facility means more than just being able to finely tune a sentence, or create a narrative flow that moves smoothly from plot point to plot point. Having talent as a writer is only the first step; you must be able to put that talent and the things you learn from your writing practice and put them into context, and that means understanding more than just the writerly talent and frame of mind.
Context, in this case, covers a lot of ground, and for many writers, a lot of what passes for context is instinctual. Knowing how malls and public spaces are commonly laid out, the social behaviors of people at a variety of functions, the ebb and flow of how people speak: most people pick this stuff up through daily life, and yet this prosaic knowledge is the fundament of building a fictional world. If you want your readers to believe in this reality, you’ve got to know these details as well as you know your heroes and villains, if not more. But, as a writer, you should know more than this, or at least enough to extrapolate it convincingly. Big disclaimer time: I’m not advocating drug use, promiscuity or any of a number of other behaviors that can hurt or kill you; this is where the creativity should probably come in.
As part of my MFA coursework, I wrote a lot of critiques and received just as many, but in all that time, I only received one piece of feedback that was useful in the long run. One of my fellow students, a person whose work I respected, mentioned offhand that one of the things she found intriguing in my stories was that my characters worked for a living. In part, this came from my own background; several years separated my undergraduate years and graduate school, so the stories I wrote in grad school were all about working folk, blue and white collar alike. Until she said this, I hadn’t thought about it, but I realized that my experience in the work force gave me an entirely different set of possibilities to work with, because I knew different situations and environments, and thus could write about them with an authority my colleagues had trouble matching. That’s not to say my colleagues didn’t have their own experiences, however: I remember several stories informed by travel, different cultures and a multitude of other experiences I’d never had.
The point is simply this: Your knowledge, passions and experience inform your writing, no matter the approach or subject. The more you have to draw on, the more you’ll be able to express and extrapolate in your work. Using your knowledge of reality will help you create new ones your readers can believe in, no matter who lives there or what happens.