Write what you know. We have all heard this useless advice. To some, ‘useless’ might seem like too strong a word. And yet I say it again. Useless.
Telling people to write what they know is useless because when one gets right down to it, the real trick isn’t writing what you know.
The trick is knowing what exactly it is you, in fact, know.
We also might be familiar with its inverse, ‘Don’t write what you know, write the kind of books you like to read.’ And with this (perhaps more useful) advice in mind, let me share one of the books I myself like to read.
The Men’s Club, by Leonard Michaels, is one book I find myself returning to again and again. It first appeared in print in 1981 and is the kind of book a smart, ambitious literature professor might write, which I understand is an apt description of its author, who taught at the University of California.
The novel is loosely based upon, or is more like a modern retelling of, Plato’s ‘The Symposium,’ a play about worldly, accomplished men (in Plato’s case they are the leading men of Athens, including his muse and mentor, Socrates; in Michaels’s case they’re modern-day ‘solid types’: lawyers, doctors, college professors, a real estate agent) who get together one evening over dinner to talk about the true nature of love. Sometimes I simply reread favorite passages; there are parts of the book, certain monologues, I’ve read dozens of times.
But it’s the opening I find irresistible:
Women wanted to about anger, identity, politics, etc. I saw posters in Berkeley urging them to join groups. I saw their leaders on TV. Strong, articulate faces. So when Cavanaugh phoned and invited me to join a men’s club, I laughed. Slowly, not laughing, he repeated himself. He was six foot nine. The size and weight entered his voice. He and some friends wanted a club. ‘A regular social possibility outside of our jobs and our marriages. Nothing to do with women’s groups.’ One man was a tax accountant, another was a lawyer. There was also a college teacher like me and two psychotherapists. Solid types. […]
Such economy. With only a few simple declarative sentences, Michaels manages to set like stone in the reader’s mind a time and a place — as well as the set-up for the entire book — and he’s not even halfway through the first paragraph.
There are times I have difficulty explaining to people why I like this book so much. I have been pressing it onto friends for years, including one female friend who, while making it no secret she considered me a ‘fully evolved’ member of my sex, was mystified by my obvious affection for the book, which she found so upsetting she could not bring herself to finish it and literally threw it into the trash. She said she found all the characters in the book, to a man, to be nothing but awful, chauvinist pigs.
My friend is one of the more insightful readers I know, but I think she misses an essential point of the book. The men in The Men’s Club get together and talk about love because they are all, to varying degrees, dissatisfied with their love lives, for the simple reason they are chauvinist pigs, willfully misunderstanding or underestimating the women in their lives.
The book is fun. And it’s funny. But more importantly, Michaels manages to capture a real moment in our culture.
This was a time leading up to Robert Bly’s Iron John, of men rediscovering the joys and/or sorrows of being men, of beating on drums into the early morning hours and walking barefoot on hot coals (I am not making this up) to conquer their fears and to prove their manly warrior spirit — when, really, all their drum-beating and hot-coal-walking was little more than an attempt to mask their collective fear at changes then taking place in America (changes we are still wrestling with today), where men no longer got to call all the shots.
Now I am not urging you to run out and buy a copy of Michaels’s book. (Though if you find yourself in the general vicinity of a copy, by all means treat yourself to a couple hours — it’s a short book, barely 120 pages in paperback — of enjoyment.) No, I am urging you to go through your own bookshelf and look for the book (or books) you find yourself returning to again and again.
When we write for a living, the act of reading becomes one of the defining features of our workaday life; as a result, we sometimes forget to take pleasure in what it is we are reading. So take a moment to ask yourself why you might have read a given book for a second or third (even a fourth or fifth) time. Why we cling to a particular text can be as informative for us as writers as the text itself.
In my own case I think I return over and over again to The Men’s Club because Michaels writes in a style so very different from my own. Leonard Michaels, who originally was from New York City, writes in a clipped, abbreviated style: imagine lots of short, (often) incomplete sentences that, while they never fail to be clear in their meaning, contain a certain literate, wise-guy music to them.
He also seems to have mastered the art of the artful transition; it is this more than anything to which I myself aspire. And it is this aspirational quality to my reading of the work that I think most inspires my affection.
Really, in the end, the book is just a bunch of guys sitting around talking in another guy’s living room — the main action of the narrative is frequently interrupted by long(-ish) monologues in which each of the characters in turn sets out to tell a story about love and ends up only revealing his own shortcomings and feelings of guilt.
And yet. And yet underneath all the profane, and mordantly funny, stories there is the very real fear and confusion and pain — and the humanity — that at one time or another we all seek to hide as we present our public selves to the world.
For in the end, the men in The Men’s Club find that, like the characters in that much ballyhooed new HBO series ‘Girls,’ while they might not have much in the way of boy-girl relationships, they do at least have each other. Just as, in Freud’s view, they have the ‘human privilege’ to be neurotic.