Write what you know: A sense of place for 6 great authors

By Stan Walens

“Write what you know.” It’s a common thread that connects the authors in this fall’s Extension literature classes. It’s also one of the main reasons why these authors all hang out on “must read” lists: each of them wrote insightfully about a world that they knew as a child, but whose contradictions they came to understand only as an adult.

Although these authors have very distinct styles, they all fall into a school of writing known as “Realism.” Realist writing talks about the plight of the indigent and dispossessed, and their exploitation by the powers that be. Realist authors believed that their work should do more than merely entertain: it should examine the social and political issues of the time, and help to improve the world.

John Steinbeck, in a series of emotionally devastating, politically-charged novels, wrote poignantly in a plain-speaking style about the verdant hills and befogged coasts of his beloved California homeland of Salinas and Monterey. He created indelible portraits of displaced American farm-workers fleeing the Dustbowl of the Midwest, who came to California to chase the American dream to find only more dust.

William Faulkner — Steinbeck’s favorite author — wrote about his own lifelong homeland, Lafayette County, Mississippi. His fictional Yoknapatawpha County imagines a rich and complex world, filled with a cast of unforgettable characters drawn from the family stories Faulkner heard during his childhood. Faulkner’s poetic and musical writing brings all of these characters vividly to life, and captures the convolutions and contradictions of the American South, its heroic myths and its failed dreams.

The South also provides the setting for so much of Tennessee Williams’ work, except his is a South struggling to become modern but hamstrung by social degeneration. One of America’s greatest dramatists, Williams’ writing is among the most beautiful and lyrical of any American playwright, whether it is describing the brutal lives of New Orleans’s urban poor ("A Streetcar Named Desire") or dissecting the secrets and mendacities of the idle rich ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof").

The three writers covered in the Masterpieces of Russian Literature course also wrote of what they knew: Dostoevski of the lost souls trapped in the nightmare of a Moscow riddled with corruption and ruled by the secret police, Turgenev and Tolstoy of the Russian countryside and the turmoil beneath its bucolic surface. All of them created characters so beautifully drawn and complex that they stand among the most fully realized creations in all of literature.

Perhaps you read some of these works when you were younger; perhaps some of them are totally new to you.  But coming to them again you will discover so much that is unfamiliar in the world you thought you knew, so much you will recognize in reading of a world that may seem long ago and far away. Take the journey into the homelands of these remarkable authors. You’ll be glad you left home.

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