What Fills Us as Writers
Recently, I made a trip to the farm my family owned in southeastern Illinois. Yes, I was trespassing, but I took nothing but memories and a few photos, so I hope the current owners will understand. One of the photos was of the cistern behind the farmhouse. I remember, as a child, lowering a sorghum pail down into the water by a rope tied around its bail. I would let the pail fill with water and pull it back to light and air. Emptying and filling up, again and again, in this place that now never leaves me–this place I still think of as home.
This memory has led me to consider what fills us as writers—what makes it impossible for us to turn away from the page. Perhaps it’s the thing we don’t understand, that something that won’t leave us alone, that nettlesome thing that we don’t quite know what to do with, so we start to find a shape for it with words. A friend told me once about a man who made his living cleaning up crime scenes. I couldn’t get that man out of my head. What was the rest of his life like once he’d spent his days cleaning up after murders and suicides? I had to write a story called “The Least You Need to Know” to try to find out.
Or maybe it’s longing—a yearning for all to be right in the world. We know we can’t create that rightness, can only come near it and know it by its absence, but we can’t stop trying to capture it on the page. A little girl went missing in a town near mine when I was sixteen. She pedaled her bicycle to the public library one evening, and she never came home. The search for her haunted me then and does to this day. I wrote a novel called The Bright Forever because I was obsessed with time and space and the way people move through it. I thought about how small motions—actions or inactions—affect what’s going to happen. I wrote a novel to try to save that little girl, but, of course, I couldn’t.
Or maybe it’s rage. Maybe we rail against injustice. My first novel, Quakertown, was based on the true story of the forced relocation of a thriving African-American community in 1920s Texas. I wrote a novel to protest that injustice, but I also knew I’d have to look at it from all perspectives. I’d have to forestall any judgment of who was right and who was wrong. I’d have to see the heroic sides of the villains and the ugly sides of the victims.
We fill ourselves up because we pay attention to the world. Simple as that. We take in the confusion and contradiction, the transient beauty, the pain, the loss, the joy, and because we are the sorts who are sensitive to everything around us, we find a way to give it voice. If we empty ourselves, we wait, knowing we’ll soon be full again. Sometimes we want to stop. Sometimes we want to live a less examined life. But we can’t. We’re writers. We embrace the world in all its glory and despair. We go to the well, again and again and again.
I’ve just returned to a novel-in-progress that I left on the shelf 5 years ago because of a constellation-rearranging family trauma. Years back when I wrote it, I needed to preach, scold and yell. I needed to shake my fist at my readers. I needed to rescue the world from itself. I have and have had an ache in my guts that never seemed to find relief. Now, as I re-approach this world and these characters, my driving need is simply to tell the story — to tell a good, damn story. I’ve still got the ache but I accept it and it’s not at the forefront of my process. Now my longing is to introduce my people and my world to the broader world… that people will want to spend time there, will need to see how it turns out for my people.
Autumn, I find myself saying this to my students often: just tell the story as simply and as completely as you can.
When I first started this writing activity sixty years ago, I was afraid I might overuse the things I found in memory until I began to realize how much memories are themselves inventions, colored, shaped and reshaped by the movements of emotions and reflections. Few things ever happened in exactly the way I remember them, if for no other reason than the fact I can’t know the whole context in which events happen(ed). My favorite example for students has been to ask them to recall a big family dinner in which a half dozen people recalled a family event. By the time the talk finished, some had a hard time believing any of the talkers had even been there. Was it Uncle Joe or Cousin Maggie who danced on the dining room table? Once the story gets hold of me, the real answer doesn’t matter. Only the answer that’s right for the story deserves my attention. By the time I finish a story well enough to send it out, I have forgotten to think about why I started it in the first place.
I spent my middle school years in Illinois and Indiana (ca. 1946-1949). They were not good years. I tried often, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that I found a way to deal with some the things that happened in that time. I discovered since then that confronting on demon successfully is likely to arouse another. If that’s the case, I need not worry about ever running out of story material.
Carl, please forgive me for taking so long to respond to your comment. I’ve been traveling quite a bit and somehow your comment escaped me. Who was it who said if we survive childhood, we have enough to write about the rest of our days?
This is very wise and inspiring. Thank you, Lee.