By Jenn Shenouda
It’s hard to be a writer and not come across that old cliché “write what you know” at least once in your career. If you are strapped for time or looking for inspiration however, there may just be a bit of gold left to mine in that overused piece of advice.
Look at it this way: your life history is already at your fingertips. You are probably the most fleshed-out character that you’ll ever meet. And because your research is mostly in your head, All you have to do to access it is to remember—to do a bit of snooping into your own psyche and see what’s there for the taking.
Just ask, Ann-Marie MacDonald—author of the widely acclaimed new novel Adult Onset. More than a decade removed since her last novel The Way the Crow Flies, Adult Onset is just as much a reflection on motherhood and how our relationship with our own parents influence how we raise our children, as it is about the reliability of memory—whether having all of the information about your past will somehow make sense of present chaos and internalized pain. It is a meditation on old wounds, whether physical or emotional, and how they can surface again in adulthood, and perhaps the best recent example of “writing what you know.”
In a recent Kobo in Conversation with journalist Rachel Giese, MacDonald described how challenging the process was for writing her most personal book yet. Unlike her previous novels, Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, which both cover larger periods of time; Adult Onset takes place within the span of one busy week.
As MacDonald explained, this allowed her to negotiate writing while parenting and taking care of life’s day-to-day concerns. “The work has to happen in this window of time” she said “and you’re not going to be schlepping books or even going on the internet. You’re not doing any research.”
This also meant that her main character, Mary-Rose, had to be a sort of parallel version of herself, a well-known novelist with a wife and two young children. Like Ann-Marie, she’s a baby boomer trying to navigate discomforting aspects of parenting, such as the rage or isolation that parents sometime feel but rarely discuss frankly.
This is not to say writing about one’s own experiences is easy. For MacDonald, writing Adult Onset, a book that draws so closely on her own family, particularly her parents, meant writing a book that was not always so warm and fuzzy.
She remembers speaking to her parents about the novel before it was published and mentioning that it might delve into some harder moments in their shared history.
While it is fortunate that she received their blessing, ultimately, she determined that when writing about the people that you are closest to “You cannot ask for permission, you can only inform people.” If you stop writing out of fear of possibly hurting the people you love then you’ve “given into a very elaborate, sophisticated form of procrastination.”
In fact, MacDonald suggested that drawing on one’s own history and that of loved ones might have its own healing properties and that contrary to forgiving and forgetting, “In order to forgive you first have to remember.” One just has to trust that “love and life is big enough to contain the whole story.”