Write What You Don’t Know.

Teachers and professors tell young writers, “Write what you know.” And there’s a certain truth to that idea. If I try to write about a cricket match, but I don’t know anything about the game, have never played it, have never watched it, don’t know the rules, and am not sure I can name 5 countries where the sport is played, I’m not going to write an excellent scene that includes the sport.

In the same way, being a high school teacher and having a teenager myself, I recognize when “young adult” authors clearly don’t know much about teenagers and are too far removed from the personal experience to do the subject justice. Their “teenagers” – for example – never swear or only think & act in culturally competent ways.

So writing what you know is a good piece of advice. Or maybe it’s not…

Recently, an editor told me that I couldn’t have a Latino narrator in one of my stories because I wasn’t “Mexican enough.” That’s a strange thing to say in any context, but especially odd since my grandmother is Mexican and I do speak and read Spanish. But apparently – in that editor’s eyes – this piece of fiction was an example of me trying to write what I didn’t know.

I recognize that politically correct mores have permeated everything in our culture – and I’m sure that this particular editor is simply a politically correct conservative – but her command (her imperative?) made me think of the idea on a larger scale.

Should Margaret Atwood not have written the science fiction novel within The Blind Assassin?

Should Cormac McCarthy not have written John Grady’s Mexican prison scenes simply because McCarthy had never been incarcerated?

Should Toni Morrison not have any Caucasian characters or narrators in any of her novels or stories?

Again, I could go on and on.

And where would this idea stop? What would be its limit? Why would we allow for this type of censorship of creative possibilities?

So – to keep this piece short – I’d say that instead of the old “write what you know” adage, I’d say it’s fine (and good) to write what you don’t know as long as you’re willing to learn about it.

With encyclopedias, empathy, books, neighbors, friends, coffee shops, Youtube, relatives, films, traveling, and curiosity as basic starting points, what can we not learn? What can we not write about?

Paddling North Five Days On The River – Day One

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Plate-glass morning water with fish shatters. A hummingbird drops over the tent and hangs in the space created by the rain.

I read a Carol Shields novel and the daylight sneaks through the leaves of the cottonwood, white and green.

It rained steady all evening, and starting a fire was like baking without sugar or flour. But now the sky is striped by blue between clouds, and I think, “How many people in history have tried to write about clouds?”

Nubes como las olas…

Nubes sin mala intención…

Drifting thoughts of clouds…

Or some other cliché…

Better ideas waiting that I’ve never had…

It would be easy to steal. To Thomas Edison. To feed an image of greatness. “Look at me, a worker, a brilliant mind.”

But I am not brilliant. My mind is not a rare jewel. I only observe what is around me. Seeing the green grasshoppers collecting on my legs at the river’s edge. The blue heron shushing across to the other side. The osprey sitting sentinel on the fence-post above the cutbank. Flipping my spinner under the branch in four feet of water and the rainbow trout hitting the Rooster Tail in the first rotation of the reel.

We use two rocks as a plate and eat the fish with our fingers. Skin salted with Johnny’s, MSG, meat blackened over a stick-fire. Hot Tang and Folgers from boiled river water.

These are no proverbs.

These are no parables.

This is only the first day. How it is. How it was.

I Have A Brain Injury, But…

I have a brain injury. There. I’ve said it. Publicly. It’s so much easier to not say it, to not admit it, to not talk about it. Because I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to explain how I feel, or discuss my symptoms, or detail how my healing’s going. I’d rather my injury not be there (and I know how obvious and stupid that statement sounds). I’d rather not be injured, but I am. I have what neurologists classify as a traumatic brain injury, a TBI.
Specifics: For the first time in my life, I can’t spell. Since the car accident on December 4th, 2014, I’ve had to relearn more than 500 words. Sometimes simple words. Three days ago, I relearned the spelling of the word “sandwich” (a complicated word – I know). Yesterday, I relearned the spelling of the word “wiggly.” Today – to copyedit this article – I had to relearn the spellings of “dissipate” and “avocado.”
Small words sometimes. Uncomplicated words. The thing is, I don’t know what I don’t know until I come across it. I’m writing, and I have to spell a word and I start typing…
…and a vast blankness appears in my mind like a gray sheet of paper has slid in front of my eyes. There’s nothing there, and I have no idea. I can’t even guess.
Also, I have headaches. Regular and significant headaches. If I get stressed or it’s too loud or there are too many things happening all at once, I get a dull ache above me eyes, and the ache spreads its spider legs into my cheekbones, down along the top of my nose, over my scalp and behind my ears. I have to spend 10 minutes in the dark, or try to go to sleep, or take migraine medication, or do all three of those things. Sometimes I put a pillow over my face and lay on the floor, waiting for the throbbing to dissipate, feeling ridiculous.
I get confused a lot as well, sometimes about little things, memories, who said what when, and whether or not I know something that I do or don’t know. I’m not sure. I ask people to tell me things twice. Three times? I sometimes ask the same question five minutes apart. I feel foolish when people tell me that they’ve already told me the answer to my question that I’ve already asked. For me, it can be a new thing each time I hear it.
So I’m not able to teach right now. Obviously. I’m on medical leave from the school district and will be for the rest of this year while my brain heals. Everyone’s going back to school tomorrow – after spring break – but I’m not. And just this week I got a letter about “permanent disability,” a term I don’t even want to think about.
This is a crazy new reality.
But there’s the issue of writing as well. My other job.
This last year, while dealing with the aftermath of the car accident and its effect on my brain, I struggled through the revision of my new novel This Is The Part Where You Laugh and the first four drafts of my next novel Too Shattered For Mending. I’ve never worked so hard to write so slowly. I didn’t always feel creative. I never felt talented. I did my work – completed my revisions and turned in my next novel – but I’ve never worked the way that I did. I’ve never struggled the way that I struggled. To make my brain work. I still loved writing (I always will) but writing this last year sometimes felt like three 1000-piece nature puzzles heaped together on a single table like some kind of cruel joke. I was the little kid trying to put all three puzzles together.
Is this the border of the undersea puzzle?
Or the border of the Yellowstone vista?
Or the edge of the stream in the Appalachian forest?
So many shades of green.
So many variations on the color blue.
Yet…
Yet…
I think of the Apostle Paul writing, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
Consider it pure joy…
Whenever you face trials…
Pure joy…
Why would he write that?
And how is it possible?
How is ‘pure joy’ created in a time of trial?
It’s a difficult question – something I’ve come back to again and again – and this is what I’ve decided: Because we have to take joy in the trials and the triumphs, the whole of life, this complicated yet singular experience in it’s entirety. To enjoy life as it is – real life – we have to know struggle as well as ease. Pain as well as wonder. Suffering as well as comfort.
The understanding of life’s duality means learning empathy, acknowledging true differences, finding the capacity for a diverse and vast love.
Also – and this is not a small thing for me – I may have a brain injury, but my life isn’t filled with struggle. I may be experiencing some difficulty currently, but I have a wonderful life. I have a life I don’t deserve, great joys that outweigh any number of trials I’ve experienced. So focusing on joy is then a choice I can make.
With that in mind, I think of all the good things, and begin my own gratitude list:
Sitting with Jennie next to a warm fireplace and reading together or drinking coffee on the porch on a sunlit morning while the neighborhood is waking up.
Rock climbing at The Columns with Roo, or hiking up the hill together and chilling in that one oak tree that overlooks the Washington/Jefferson Street Bridge and the western half of the city.
Buying ice cream with Rain while we make sarcastic jokes in our local Safeway, then standing in the kitchen back at home and eating Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked, laughing about our days.
Reading a book in a chair, barefoot on the grass.
Listening to new music on the radio while I drive, or listening to old rap CDs in my kitchen while I do the dishes.
Going on a family night-hike by the light of the moon.
Watching Jupiter rise like blazed chromium in the east.
Camping in the desert and seeing my dog Bob Dylan run coyote circles in the afternoon dust.
Reading contemporary poetry.
Viewing collections of art.
Hanging out with friends.
Hanging out with my dad or Maddie.
Joking with the student leaders in my outdoor program.
Eating dark chocolate or avocados or quesadillas or breakfast-for-dinner whenever I want to.
Finishing a good novel and starting a new one.
Also, I realize what an amazing life I’ve been given in this country, how I’m part of the global 1% economically with my house and my car and my refrigerator and my bank account and my bicycle and my book contract and my backyard and my hammock and my laptop and the clean running water that comes out of the tap, water that I can drink any time without fear of dysentery or cholera or water-born parasites. I live such an easy life in a home set to 67 degrees right now while it’s 44 degrees outside.
Realizing that my list could go on forever (that I stopped myself from writing fifty other things), I understand that gratitude creates an infinite capacity for joy. This is the wonderful life I live, and if my life is this good, this easy, then what will I do with my hours? How will I help other people? How will I encourage and love and foster and develop?
Also, what am I holding onto that doesn’t really matter? What do I call “important” that has no eternal value? What objects am I grasping in my tightly-clenched pathetically-weak human fists?
I keep Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” next to my bed and I’ve reread it ten or so times lately. To end that poem, Oliver writes, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”