Write what you know.
It’s a simple phrase, but in literary and writing circles it can lead to debate as heated and as passionate as, say, What should America’s immigration policy be or How should the Second Amendment be interpreted?
Should you or shouldn’t you. Write about what you know, that is.
Dozens of websites exist that explore the matter.
On the pro side — the write-what-you-know side — there are authors such as P.D. James (“There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer”) and William T. Vollmann (“I guess you have to start, as Hemingway says, write about what you know, which is usually yourself.”)
Weighing in on the con side are writers such as Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro (“‘Write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography”) and Ken Kesey, who wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (“One of the dumbest things you were taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull.”)
Others even change the equation a bit. Dan Brown says, “Write what you want to know,” and Meg Wolitzer says, “Write what obsesses you.”
Anyway, all this is to say that as I sat down to write my first book, I didn’t wrestle with the issue very much at all. It was a clear case of choosing to write about what I know and what I know best, what I have lived for 59 years: Life with an immigrant Dad from Italy. I know a little — some would argue very little — about being the editor of a daily community newspaper. I also know something about travel and writing in general and making wine and sports. But no, unquestionably what I know the most about is being Italian-American.
And thus, “George Washing Machine, Portables and Submarine Races: My Italian-American life” was born. (More on that title later, by the way). It’s 260 pages and 37 chapters on the subject, with my Dad so clearly the star that the publisher decided that a photo of him should grace the cover.
It was about a year in the making, and while it a bit nerve wracking to put your life’s story out there, I pray — with all due respect to aforementioned Messrs. Ishiguro and Kesey — that it is not dull. When I pitched it, with a few sample chapters, to Tiziano Dossena, the editor at a small niche publisher called Idea Graphics LLC with offices in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and New York City, he said, “I think we could have something here.”
I hope so.
Writing a memoir is another topic unto itself among writers. Some would advise to steer clear, but I don’t see this as only autobiographical. It’s something of a biography about my Dad. It’s also about food (what book about Italy wouldn’t be?), though I don’t get into recipes, so it’s not a cookbook. It’s not exactly a travel guide, though trips to the Old Country are detailed. Each chapter also begins with an Italian phrase, proverb or passage that relates to that chapter, so it’s something of a language guide too.
It’s not a treatise on immigration policy, but let’s face it, America is the greatest melting pot in world history. By telling my Dad’s story of coming to America in 1958 knowing only a handful of words, my goal is to stir similar stories and memories in readers, whether their relatives came here from Italy or any other country around this globe.
And speaking of not knowing the language, the title of the book references a few of the phrases that Dad used either incorrectly — and hopefully somewhat humorously to the reader — or just could not quite figure out. Without giving too much away, you’ll learn what George Washing Machine, portables and submarine races mean in my life as you read the book.
OK, now for the shameless plug:
To learn even more about what went into the book, check out a video interview on our website, www.fltimes.com that I did with Josh Durso at FingerLakes1.com. I also will be doing a book signing at the Sons of Italy Lodge in Geneva on Dec. 10. I am hoping to set up other signings around the area as well; more on those as they develop.
My sincerest hope is that it arouses an emotion or two and you find it anything but dull.