My mind was drawing a blank on K. All the English words that should begin with K begin with C instead. I could fill a whole month with C words: convention, collection, character, colon, critique, computer, creativity, chapter, capitalization, coda, classics, copyright . . .
All I could come up with for K were “kern” (a typographical term) and “knotty” (characteristic of prose that needs to be untangled), neither of which inspired me. “Knotty,” however, got me to thinking about words that begin with K but don’t sound like it. Up popped a granddaddy of writerly clichés: “Write what you know.” Aha! “Knowledge” begins with K!
I’m more likely to write what I want to find out, but it’s true, things I know and things I’d forgotten I know keep showing up in my writing.
It’s also true that so far I’ve chosen to set my fiction on Martha’s Vineyard, partly because I know it pretty well and partly because I want to know it better.
Wolfie, the title character of the novel in progress, is based on Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, because Travvy has taught me a fair amount about dogs and dog training and what’s a writer to do with the interesting stuff she’s learned besides write about it?
But I don’t know how to rescue a sixth-grade girl who’s been incested by her stepfather, and I don’t know how the stepfather can look himself in the mirror having done what he’s almost certainly done. That’s part of what I’m trying to find out.
Ursula Le Guin’s essay collection Language of the Night was at hand because I’d quoted it in “J Is for Journey,” so I flipped through a couple of my favorite essays and came to this, in “Talking About Writing”:
I invite you to meditate on a pair of sisters, Emily and Charlotte. Their life experience was an isolated vcarage in a small, dreary English village, a couple of bad years at a girls’ school, another year or two in Brussels, which is surely the dullest city in all Europe, and a lot of housework. Out of that seething mass of raw, vital, brutal, gutsy Experiece they made two of the greatest novels ever written: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
This struck me with special force because I’d recently watched To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s wonderful film about the Brontë sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne.
Le Guin goes on:
Now of course they were writing from experience; writing about what they knew, which is what people always tell you to do; but what was their experience? What was it they knew? Very little about ‘life.’ They knew their own souls, they knew their own minds and hearts; and it was not a knowledge lightly or easily gained.
A writer can learn plenty by doing research, whether this involves extensive reading or spending time in a place or interviewing lots of people. But to do justice to all this knowledge, she has to know her own soul, her own mind and heart. That’s what enables her to make sense of her research, to understand or create characters that are not like her at all.