Recently, I drove by a field and saw a rusted corn picker nearly hidden by weeds. I thought of a similar corn picker that throughout my childhood sat at the edge of the woods on our farm, never used, going to rust. It occurs to me now that this must have been the corn picker my father was using that early November day in 1956 when he had the accident that cost him both of his hands. How many times, as a child, did I pass by this picker and never make that connection? To me, it was just an old farm implement, one that had nothing to do with me, when, really, it, and what happened on that day in 1956, had everything to do with my childhood and all the years to come.
Beginning writers, when it comes to choosing their material, often overlook that which is nearest to them. They cast their eyes elsewhere because they assume no one will be interested in the subject matter that they know the best and that’s the most significant for them. I fell into that trap myself. I thought stories about my small town and farming community weren’t worth writing about because sophisticated readers would never be interested. Then I heard the voice of Richard Ford, in his collection, Rock Springs, and even though he was writing mostly about the American West, I heard something in his direct and understated approach that was familiar. That was the way the men from my native southeastern Illinois spoke: restrained, but with a bit of an edge, as they went directly about the business of telling the stories they had to tell.
If I had it to do over again, I’d tell the younger writer I was to write about what he knows best. I’d tell him if he can’t make something out of the small and intimate, he’ll never be able to make anything out of something large and distant. If a writer can’t make us feel something when we read about an old country woman—a farmer’s widow, maybe—making herself a cup of Sanka just after dawn in a quiet house, then he’ll never be able to move us with stories of war, or murder, or catastrophe. I’d tell the younger writer I was to stay close to home.
I’d also tell him to not hurry, to get comfortable with silence. When I was younger, I was always trying to impose a plot on my characters and hurry it along. Better to go slow. Better to wait in silence until something comes to you: a line of dialogue, a line of description, a clear image of a character performing a specific action. Wait with confidence. Something will always come, and, when it does, it will be the good, true thing.
Open your eyes, I’d tell the young writer I was. Open your ears. Look closely. Listen closely. Be patient. Sometimes it takes a while for us to know what we know.