How many times are we told to write about what we know?
I’ll be honest — I’m a magpie, by which I mean I’m someone who’s easily distracted when previously unnoticed bright shiny objects catch my eye. I believe this is a wonderful quality for a writer. Sure, we need discipline, stick-to-it-ness, focus and all that. We need to be able to get our butt in the chair, the pen in our fingers and slip down to the dreaming state where we can follow one word after another.
That’s a given.
But what about inspiration? Could it be that if we pay attention to what catches our attention, what sparkles in the corner of our eye, might be inspiration calling?
I’m reading (one of the five or six books I have on the go. See magpie, above) In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan L. Richardson. In the first part of the book, Richardson talks about the Garden of Eden, about Eve and hunger and that apple. She discusses the possibility that God (The Ineffable, your Higher Power, your Soul, whatever. . . ) works to guide us through our desires and hungers, pointing us to a deeper desire, for which the overt desire may just be a metaphor. She quotes M.F.K Fisher, the famed food writer, from the forward to Fisher’s book The Gastronomical Me, which offers insights into the “mysterious ways our hungers and histories intertwine.”:
When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied. . . and it is all one.
I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.
I think that’s lovely, and true.
If I wrote about only those things I now know, I suspect I’d end up writing about the same things over and over, and not very many of them at that. Eventually I’d grow bored with my work and so, therefore, would my readers.
Some writers, like Charles Bukowski and Richard Yates, wrote almost purely autobiographical work, of course, and good for them, but I feel blessed by my magpie nature. How else would I have burrowed into the 1930s and the particular form of mental illness that was such a strong metaphor for The Great Depression in my first novel, The Stubborn Season? Or what about the war correspondents and the events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (countries I have yet to visit) in my second novel, The Radiant City? I am hardly old enough to have lived through the 30s, nor have I ever been a conflict-zone journalist, never mind a male one. I am certainly not a young man growing pot and trying to survive the horrors of an abusive childhood, as Albert does in Our Daily Bread. Then again, Flaubert wasn’t a bored, love-starved housewife, Jeffrey Eugenides isn’t a hermaphrodite and I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov was a child molester.
A writer’s job, in my opinion, isn’t only to write about what we know, it’s to write about what fascinates us, what we’re obsessed with, curious about, intrigued by. Paying attention to those cravings leads us to write about subjects that matter to us.
What if you’re fascinated by, say, physicists or astronomers or cops, but you are none of those things. Fine. In fact, wonderful! Time for research. One of the great pleasure of writing is research — an excuse to spend hour after hour, day after day, diving headfirst into books on any number of subjects, following a trail of sparkly bits through the library stacks, making notes, feeling that flicker of excitement when I find something new . . .
I have learned more from the long hours of research I’ve done for various books than from any other kind of education. Even if I start researching a book and then find it isn’t going to pan out, who cares? What wonderful things I’ve learned in the process!
So, the next time you find yourself hungry to know about how the railway was built or what happens in the tunnels beneath New York City or what’s it would be like to be a sapper in World War II, go ahead a spend some time investigating. Who knows where you might be led by what you don’t yet know?