"Write what you know." It's an age-old adage, a piece of advice for aspiring writers, counseling them to use their experiences to make their stories ring true, to make their stories matter.
Whether or not you agree, it's advice that's worked for many writers through the years. Two notable Southern authors who've taken it, Cassandra King and John Warley, are headed to the Circular Congregational Church on May 22 to talk about their stories, their books, and what it's like to write what they know.
Cassandra King's The Same Sweet Girls' Guide to Life (Maiden Lane Press, 2014) is, she says, "a light book based on a speech I gave a couple times, most recently at my alma mater last year. I talk about the Same Sweet Girls, a group of women I met in college. We're not sweet, we're not girls anymore, but we're pretty much the same in a lot of ways."
In the book King talks about some of the life lessons that have come her way since becoming a Same Sweet Girl. For example, she says, "Don't take yourself so seriously. It's important to still be wild and crazy. Sometimes it's the only way to get through life. Almost everything can be handled with a little bit of humor."
King's already written several fictionalized, and often humorous, accounts on her experiences as a Same Sweet Girl. "It takes a lot of courage to tell experiences that are somehow related to your life. It may not be fully autobiographical, but even then, people know what you're talking about," she says.
Fellow author Warley agrees. His novel, A Southern Girl, is the debut book for Story River Press, a new fiction imprint for the University of South Carolina Press, and it's a novel that's been years in the making. He began writing it in 1993, years after adopting a little girl from Korea. The adoption was the catalyst for his story, but the tale is fiction. Warley says, "It's autobiographical to the extent that it's about an adopted Korean orphan in 1979. But it's not my daughter's story. It's not my family's story."
Using your own story as a starting point, however, can be cathartic. "I think writers often write to put down on paper the thoughts and emotions they're sorting through themselves," continues Warley, "Writing can be a way of explaining things to yourself, and in the process hopefully explaining it to a few thousand other people."
Helping spread these kinds of tales is Story River Press, Warley's publisher, and the brainchild of a Kentucky-native editor, Jonathan Haupt. Pat Conroy, one of South Carolina's biggest heavyweight authors, joins the team as the editor-at-large. When speaking of the whole experience of working with Haupt and Warley (an old Citadel chum of Conroy's), Conroy sounds nearly giddy. "At Story River, we want to publish novels with great value. Literary value. Books that wouldn't get a reading in the big New York houses. When John's novel came through, we both went crazy for it, so we chose his story as the first novel to represent us at Story River."
Of course, for as much as he has to say about Warley, Conroy also has some things to add about King's books. After all, she is his wife. "I'm so proud of her career I cannot stand it. I've loved her books. I love that I'm in one part of the house writing a novel, she's in another writing a novel." It's a beautiful image, which may show up someday in one of their novels. After all, these are writers who are making a living, writing what they know and now sharing that knowledge with budding writers and fans alike.