Last year at a writer’s retreat a late-night talk with a friend turned to the the subject of authenticity, and the struggles inherent in creativity and learning our craft. She shared with me a lesson that I was only beginning to understand on my own, advice that she had been given by one of her Clarion instructors: She could keep writing what she was writing, the instructor said, and she would be a perfectly good writer. And that was fine, if good was what she wanted to be. But if she wanted to be great, she needed to start writing what was real, what mattered to her. And if she did, if she could be that brave, there would be no stopping her.
I remember the first time I put something real in a story. It was the smell of my ex-boyfriend’s leather jacket, the way it smelled at 2:00 a.m. on a park bench in a seaside college town as we watched a Jerusalem cricket slowly amble by in the sodium glow of the streetlight. I don’t remember which story it went into–something trunked long ago, I’m sure. But I remember how embarrassed I was as I wrote the words, writing this real thing that had actually happened, this moment that existed in time and perhaps in someone else’s memory, too. I felt exposed, and like I might be misunderstood–like someone might find out, and then think that the rest of the story was about that ex-boyfriend, or that time. It wasn’t–I just needed that smell, and that’s where I found it in my memory.
That was the first time I understood the phrase “write what you know” to mean something other than what I had previously thought it meant. I had only scratched the surface in that moment, and it still terrified me.
The second time I wrote something real, I hid it deep inside another story. I took the end result of an unhappy relationship and hid it in the story of two other people I made up, in a situation that bore no resemblance to mine, but had the same outcome. I was getting closer, I could tell by the personal rejections and the several times it was held for second looks, but it still wasn’t good enough. Today I wonder whether it failed because I hid what was real too deep for authenticity. Readers are smart that way.
A couple more years of collecting rejections and eventually I was able to dig a little deeper, peer into my own heart and see what mattered to me. It will probably surprise no one to learn that what I found there were books.
When I was a kid I had this set of books of fairy tales from the 1920s that my grandmother had given me. I read the stories in them over and over: “Gigi and the Magic Ring.” “The Girl Who Used Her Wits.” “The Romance of Hine Moa.” “Miska and the Man-With-the-Iron-Head.” “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.” I escaped into those stories and wished I could stay there. I wanted Gigi’s ring, and Seven-League boots, and to be friends with the fairy whose hair became a waterfall. What if I could? What if I were a character from a fairy tale, and those people were my friends, living in the shared world of that book?
My first sale came from writing about those books and my childhood wish to be part of them, and how those fairy tales had written their language into me through endless rereading. It was a little abstract, maybe–just a feeling and a childhood daydream, paired with the existence of a set of books, but it was real. It mattered to me, and I guess it showed.
A year later I drew on what I knew about being a kid with a dying parent and a lot of questions, observing very early that life is not fucking fair, and having the platitudes of my elders offer no answers and bring me no peace. “The Three Feats of Agani” was a difficult story to write from a technical perspective, but I felt like I was on to something (though I wasn’t quite sure what) and that feeling was quickly validated when it sold.
Some time later I picked up Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones for the first time in years. I had never been comfortable with her suggested exercise of “filling the pages” with the memories of my life. My life makes me damned uncomfortable at times, and there are whole chunks of it I’m nowhere close to ready to revisit. But I decided to try it. One session produced a page on why I had declined to view my mother’s body after she died. That page became a story, predictably called “My Mother’s Body,” and it, too, sold quickly, most of it exactly as I wrote it in my notebook originally. I am a notoriously slow writer–some stories have taken me years to finish. But I wrote that one in two sittings, and with very little revision. I almost felt like I had cheated.
I was starting to get it. When I wrote what was real, it wasn’t just truer–it was easier, and it was better.
There are layers to “what we know.” What you know may be the smell of a lemon grove, or the sounds in the vet’s office after your dog was hit by a car. It may be the stickiness of a Florida summer, or the way neon light reflects in puddles of spilled beer at midnight on Bourbon Street. Or what it’s like to be the child of a preacher, or the grandmother of a kid with special needs. Sometimes what you know are the details, and sometimes they’re the whole story. The stuff that you know is what makes a story authentic and convincing.
It’s hard at times to tap into that stuff, and it’s scary, not knowing what we might find. But I’m starting to understand that the stories I need to tell are the ones just waiting for me to ask the question. They just want me to put pen to paper and remember, and they’ll come. For all the years I’ve put in so far (10 and counting) I’m still only at the beginning of this journey. I need to continually ask myself:
What do I know?
What’s real to me?
And what do I want to be–good, or great?