by A.X. Ahmad
In my early 30s, I signed up for my first fiction writing class through an adult education program. We met one evening a week in the teacher’s freezing kitchen and sat around her scarred wooden table. She was a grumpy, white-haired lady in her 80s, and age had stripped her of any social niceties: she tore apart our writing mercilessly, and was infuriated by any story that smelled, even faintly, of dishonesty.
“This story is fraudulent,” she would say, with a ferocious scowl. “You should write what you know. Tear it up and start again.”
My classmates were working in various genres: one was writing a fantasy novel, one an account of a cross-country trip, another a novel about adoption. But whenever the old lady judged that we had no authority to invent a scene or a character, her blood pressure rose, her bony finger waved in the air, and out came the vehement judgment: Fraudulent!
Students often burst into tears; some left after a few classes. I stayed, because I desperately wanted to be a writer. It was not clear to me what my teacher’s criteria were, so I stuck to writing about my childhood in India. I knew that world intimately and felt that I could write about it with integrity. So I decribed in great detail my family’s ancestral house, my dead grandmother, and old servants. Fueled by homesickness, I burnished my memories to a Proustian sheen, and my teacher enjoyed my prose. One character she particularly enjoyed was a dour, deaf old family cook, and she lavishly praised my ability to bring him to life. I remained silent, since I had invented nothing, just described the man as I remembered him, down to the curry stains on his tunic and his habit of sticking a half-smoked cheroot behind his ear.
My teacher’s praise encouraged me, but all my writing read like memoir. My so-called fiction was so close to my own experience that I could not shape my narratives into that mysterious thing, a story. My work had a beginning, and a middle, but then petered out, since real life, it seemed, offered no resolutions.
Growing increasingly frustrated, I moved on to other writing classes, and other teachers, but my writing did not evolve. I soon ran out of childhood memories of India, and I felt that I didn’t know enough about America to set my stories here. Whenever I tried to invent a character or a situation, I felt a stab of guilt. I could hear that old lady’s voice hissing in my ear: Fraudulent! Write what you know!
And then a catastrophe happened to my personal life, and all my writing ground to a halt. I met someone else and my decade-long marriage came to an end. All my life, I had followed a set script, living my life the way I was expected to: I had married an Indian woman and had a son, right on schedule; I had a professional job as an architect, a nice car, and a mortgage payment. Now that life was over. I moved out into in a tiny, rented apartment, saw my son a few times a week, and took the bus. When I looked in the mirror, I hardly recognized myself: the driven immigrant kid with the self confident air had been replaced by a tentative and shaken stranger.
The catastrophe destroyed not just my personal life, but my social one. As the drama of the divorce played out, old friends and family members stopped talking to me. Surprisingly, acquaintances at work and complete strangers I met on the bus shared their own divorce stories with me. You’ll get over it, they counseled me, Time is a great healer. Then one of them told me that the divorce was just a shattering of my personal narrative, and I was intrigued. After all, I had struggled with narrative and story for years. This acquaintance gave me a book of Buddhist philosophy, and I immediately devoured it. From it I learned that our cast-iron sense of self is often just a narrative that we have constructed, nothing more. Our attempts to cling to this story, even when life makes it incoherent, just lead to suffering.
During those pain-filled days, as I spent hours alone with my toddler son, and visited a divorce lawyer, I muttered Buddhist sayings to myself. “Relax into uncertainty,” I’d say, or, “The moment is the teacher. Stop focusing on the story.”
My old life came to a complete end when I quit my job and moved to a different city with my new partner. She had a job there, but I was at a loose end, and she insisted I take a writing class. To please her, I signed up for a writing course on writing suspense. I knew nothing about plot, or suspense. I knew, deep in my bones, that I had no material to write about. I would probably just sit and stare at a blank page, and write nothing. This class would prove, once and for all, that I was not a writer.
The only catch was that I had to write 20 pages of a suspense novel to even apply to the class. There was no way I could write about my childhood in India, so I did the unthinkable: I made stuff up. I had recently spent some time on the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, and also found a book of photographs about the Indian Army. I took these scraps of experience and created a story about an ex-Indian Army Captain who had left India in disgrace and immigrated to America; he ended up working as a caretaker on Martha’s Vineyard and looked after the vacation homes of the rich and famous.
True, the Captain was my age, and I gave him a disintegrating marriage, but all the rest was pure fiction: his affair on the Vineyard with a Senator’s wife, and the political plot that he was soon sucked into. As I wrote all this, I could hear my former teacher yelling into my ear: Fraudulent!
Much to my surprise, I was accepted into the class, and my teacher encouraged me to finish the novel. I wrote every day, and as the pages piled up, a strange alchemy occurred. I invented characters very far from my own experience—a legless Vietnam veteran, a powerful African-American Senator—but poured into them my emotional truths and my experiences. Somehow these creatures of my imagination had a life and integrity of their own.
I ended up selling my first novel, and then another. For my second book I went farther, and imagined the entire career of a Bollywood actress and a Mumbai mafia don. And as I wrote, I occasionally thought of my first teacher. I could imagine clearly the group of cowed students sitting in her freezing kitchen while she tore into yet another piece of writing. I could hear her quavering voice saying, Write what you know! Why had she insisted on this so vociferously?
I knew so little about the old lady: just that she had lived in that bleak gray clapboard house for most of her life, outliving her husband and her adult children. Surely she had never expected her life to turn out the way it did, all alone in that chilly house, her one social contact every week the writing class that she presided over so fiercely. Surely she knew that fiction had to have a coherence that was so often missing in life.
And then, finally, I realized that I had completely misinterpreted her advice. I had been so intent on producing pages that I had taken her words at face value. When she had criticized my classmates, it was not because they had inserted an alien into their stories, or had described a trip to China without ever going there: it was because the stories rang emotionally false. When she insisted on Write what you know, surely she was referring to emotional, not narrative truth.
Our teacher was not instructing us to be bound by the material provided by our lives, but to be faithful to our emotional experiences. It was not a choice between Write what you know, or Write what you don’t know, but rather Write the emotional truth of the experience, even if the story is far from your own life.
But back when I took the old lady’s class, I had not experienced loss, heartache and emotional death. I had not been shunned by my family and received the proverbial kindness of strangers. The world I had inhabited had been a pre-scripted, emotionally safe one. When told Write what you know, it was no wonder that I had turned to the emotional certainty of my childhood.
By my early 40s, life had cracked open the hard shell of myself. I had realized that the fixed narrative of my life was just a story I told myself. Like any story, it was a coherence made out of shards of experience. And now I could apply this lesson to the page.
I had finally realized that I could be free to invent, and to be truthful at the same time. The voice that had shouted Fraudulent! in my ear for so long was finally silenced.
A.X. Ahmad grew up in India and now splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn. His new book, The Last Taxi Ride, is about a NYC cab driver who is accused of murdering a Bollywood actress. More at: axahmad.com and on Twitter: @axahmadauthor
Click here to read Terry Hong’s feature on A.X. Ahmad.
Homepage image via Cambridge University Press