Friday, August 2, 2019

The Limits of “Write What You Know”: Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I recently listened to the wonderful audiobook of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novella that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928. The book takes place in Peru in the early 1700s. Now, why would an author like Thornton Wilder, who spent his early years in Madison, Wisconsin, be writing about life in Lima two hundred years before his time? 

Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
New writers are often admonished to “write what you know.” Basically this means that authors are supposed to work best when personally familiar with the type of setting and characters they’re depicting. Not only that, but today critics and other writers often accuse authors of appropriation if they write about cultures, characters, and/or histories other than the ones from their own backgrounds and ancestry.

One difficulty with “write what you know” is that writing is always an act of the imagination. Even an autobiography involves huge leaps of the mind to recreate scenes and dialogue from the past. Why limit our compassion and insight to only ourselves? Isn’t literature all about extending our empathy beyond our own little circle?

Yes, there is a grave danger of misusing, exploiting, or distorting the stories and experiences of people from other cultures. That type of writing can be deeply hurtful to members of the appropriated group. But I do believe that danger can be swerved around in the right hands. If writer are sufficiently empathetic and aware, and if they have something important and vital to say, writing about another culture or history can be extremely effective.

In the case of Thornton Wilder, there were kinds of human interactions that he could portray better in 18th century Lima than he could in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1920s. This was possibly because the culture and society he grew up in was not a place that nourished certain personality traits that moved him, such as the character of a great actress who dazzled an audience that knew the classics of Spanish theater.

In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder not only creates a world of dimensional and sympathetic characters in 18th century South America, he does it with extraordinary perceptiveness. How is it possible, I asked myself as I listened to one incredible revelation after another in this book, that Wilder knows so much about the little kindnesses and jealousies that individuals show one another in this world? Had he spent a great deal of time in Peru? He was just over 30 when the novel was published.

When I investigated the background of the novel, I discovered to my astonishment that Wilder had never visited Peru or anywhere else in South America when he wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey. And yet he could describe in excruciating detail the experience of attending the theater in Lima in the early 1700s:

“She [the Marquesa de Montemayor] decided to go to the Comedia where the Perichole was playing Doña Leonor in Moreto’s Trampa Adelante.…The Marquesa sat in her box gazing with flagging attention at the brilliant stage. Between the acts it was the Perichole’s custom to lay aside the courtly role and appear before the curtain to sing a few topical songs. The malicious actress had seen the Marquesa arrive and presently began improvising couplets alluding to her appearance, her avarice, her drunkenness, and even to her daughter’s flight from her…”

Whether it is historically accurate that actors did this on stage in Lima in 1714 is not the point here. What’s important is that this scene is highly emotional. We, the readers, know that the Marquesa is a deep soul and a great writer, who is being wrung out in public by a superficial but sparkling person. In a dramatic turn of events, that actress later begs the Marquesa's forgiveness when she comes to know the generosity of the other woman’s heart.

Without the distance of writing about 18th century Peru, I doubt that Thornton Wilder could have created the moments of indelible pathos and insight in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Here are two of my favorites.

Writing about the artist’s constant striving for perfection, even after the audience thinks the work is good enough: “The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”

“The whole purport of the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.”

Yes, write about what you know, but never forget that knowledge can be an electric vehicle, charged by the imagination.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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Putting Together a Book Manuscript
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Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
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Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
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Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry