As Mrs. Corpening marched our eighth-grade class into the Revolutionary War, she announced that the unit would culminate in a Project. Everyone at Wiley Junior High knew about the Project. The girls would make patchwork quilts and dolls out of calico and stuffing, and the boys would write a book report on Johnny Tremain. This year, however, Mrs. Corpening presented us with another option that grabbed hold of me by the front of my shirt: we could write a diary—or, for the boys, a journal—from the point of view of a fictitious character living during the Revolutionary War.
Most of my classmates were puzzled or annoyed by this choice. I was thrilled. This was the first time at school that someone had asked me to write creatively. As a child, I read books everywhere—including the dinner table, to my father’s bemusement—and I had a vivid imagination that allowed me to transform my backyard into an Army base, an undersea laboratory, or a space station. I also played Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs, which were all about inventing stories and characters and entire worlds in your head. Who wanted to write a stupid book report on Johnny Tremain? Instead, I invented a frontier woodsman who was swept up by the Revolution and fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. In that battle, the death of the British commander sealed the Patriot victory. Of course, my character was the hero who shot the British commander.
What I loved about that assignment was the sheer audacity of the idea that I could make up whatever I wanted. I scanned the encyclopedia and my social studies textbook for background info, but otherwise, the story was all mine. It was like the best kind of daydreaming, except with the permanence of ink on a page.
* * *
After eighth grade, I left the Winston-Salem public school system for boarding school in Virginia. There my classmates and I felt that a lot was expected of us, that the stakes had been raised. I dutifully buckled down and learned how to write a persuasive five-paragraph essay, my eighth-grade creative journal consigned to a drawer and forgotten.
In my fifth form or junior year, however, Mr. Blain, who taught the novel genre, created an unusual assignment for us. Mr. Blain was tall and slim and wry, and he would often stand at the front of the room and lean back against his desk, arms folded comfortably across his stomach. He did this as he told us about our assignment. “We’re going to study the novel,” he said. “And we shall read a lot.” He paused and smiled. “But this trimester, you are also going to write a novel.”
We weren’t sure we had heard correctly. Write a novel? We were going to write a novel? Ourselves?
That is exactly what we did. Fifteen students, fifteen chapters, one per student. Any topic, any plot, any writing style of our choosing. “Barring egregious and unnecessary profanity and pornography,” Mr. Blain added, which led to a few muffled groans. We made committees—Character, Plot, Setting. I was on the Plot committee, where I sensed the action was. And I wanted in. I wanted to help decide what would happen. And so I volunteered to write the opening chapter.
The novel, such as it was, told the story of Trip, a senior lacrosse player at an all-boys boarding school. “Write what you know” was advice we all took, although we took liberal creative license with this rule. Trip discovers there is a drug ring on campus run by—gasp!—the assistant headmaster and disciplinarian. The novel, entitled Class Ring, is choppy, self-contradictory, and highly unbelievable. But it was a watershed moment for me as a writer. I think it was an important moment for everyone in that class. We would talk about the possibilities for our novel in class, on the way to practice, walking back to the dorms from dinner. We argued about the fate of various minor characters. We gave Trip a sidekick and accomplice, Walter, an unpopular nerd who sorts tee shirts and socks in the school gym. Mr. Blain made comparisons to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza that flew right over our heads, but we beamed at his praise nonetheless. We were writing a Novel.
* * *
“Write what you know” is perhaps the best-known advice that is given to writers. It made sense to me when I first heard it. But then, at the impressionable age of an undergraduate discovering his lifelong passion, I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. In it, Gardner cautions the writer about write-what-you-know: “Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about one’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister.” This floored me. It also freed me, I thought. I could write whatever I wanted. It’s not that I felt ashamed or embarrassed about my own life. It’s that my life felt, well, boring. I wasn’t born on the lip of a volcano, or the child of secret agents, or haunted by some dark, secret tragedy. My father was a banker, my mother a homemaker. I had gone to boarding school and then to a small liberal arts college. What did I know from my own personal experience that I could possibly turn into fiction?
So I decided to write about things I didn’t know about.
* * *
Fast forward twenty years and I have a Ph.D. in creative writing, a teaching job at a private school in Atlanta, two young boys, and a fiercely intelligent wife. She is also patient, which helps when you are married to a would-be novelist.
I had spent more than a decade writing a novel set partially in Ireland and dealing with family drama, the IRA, and the sins of the past. It was my dissertation, and I learned how to write by constantly trying to hack my way to the story at the center of that thing, but the novel never quite came together. After reading yet another draft of it, my wife said, not unkindly, “Why don’t you write about something you know?”
“I’m a white Southern male who went to boarding school,” I said. “I teach high school English. Who wants to read that?”
“You don’t have to write about that,” my wife said, patiently. “But you could write a story that takes place at a boarding school.”
I resisted at first. I love Dead Poets Society and The Catcher in the Rye, but I didn’t want to copy those stories. I was also intimidated, truth be told. And John Gardner’s advice still lingered. But the Irish novel wasn’t responding to my latest attempts to flog it into shape. And I did have an idea about a young teacher plagued by an event from his own student days.
My wife encouraged me to explore this new story. “Give it a prologue where something shocking happens,” she said. “Like somebody dies.”
I considered this. “No, he doesn’t die,” I said. “He vanishes.” And I went down the hall to start writing.
Talking about his excellent debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Ed Tarkington said he abandoned the macho “Western noir” he had been writing and went back to where he had started: “the memory of growing up in a small Southern town in the late 1970s and early 80s, in a family that was both typical and strange. I’d shied away from that place for years, afraid the soil wasn’t deep enough in which to root the kind of novel I thought I was supposed to write.” I took a long, hard look at my Ireland novel and saw that it was the novel I thought I was supposed to write. Instead, I focused on what I had been writing about, what I wanted to write about: friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and redemption.
To my surprise, I found it enormously fun to plunder my own life and transmute people, places, and events from my own experience into fiction. All lives are particularly unique, so there is no lack of experiences from which to draw. It’s “write what you know” with a vengeance. Some of the characters in Shadow of the Lions have the same first or last names as some of my classmates from Woodberry Forest School, for instance. Some of the classroom and dorm scenes are based on things I have witnessed or done. But my novel is not autobiography, by any means. It’s a narrative that draws from my own life to deepen the story, to ground it in a kind of reality with which I’m familiar. But it’s not my life, or even my story. It’s the story of Matthias, stranded between the lions at the gates of Blackburne, watching his best friend disappear into the woods, then stumbling after him. And I’m running after them both, trying to write it all down.
 Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. Vintage Books, 1983, p. 18.
 Tarkington, Ed. “How I Gave Up on the Great American Novel and Got a Book Deal.” Literary Hub, 7 January 2016, http://lithub.com/how-i-gave-up-on-the-great-american-novel-and-got-a-book-deal/. Accessed 20 November 2016.