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.