Many years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I drove from Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I was living at the time, to my native southeastern Illinois for the Christmas holidays. I was in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas at the time, and we were on semester break. The drive took ten hours, and by the time I’d looped around St. Louis and found my way to Illinois State Route 50, it was dark. It was cold and dark, and I was driving through one small town after another, looking at Christmas light displays, and then, as I left those towns and drove on through the countryside, I saw the barn lot lights and the stars lit up on the tops of silos and the Christmas lights at farmhouses in the distance. Then, and even now, each time I cross the state line into Illinois, no matter from what direction, I feel something inside me—something like the comfort of an old quilt pulled to my chin, or the soft denim of a favorite pair of jeans pulled on at the end of a day spent in my grownup clothes—that tells me I’m home.
So it was that night in the early 1980s. As I drove down the main streets of the small towns and out into the country, I focused on the Christmas lights, and I knew I was back in the part of the world I knew the best. I knew the courthouses with their war monuments and their clock towers. I knew the bars, their windows illuminated with Christmas lights and neon Schlitz signs. I knew the way the houses along the main streets dwindled with just a few beyond the city population sign, and then the dark of the country, the red reflectors marking the turns into the farm lanes, the flares burning at oil wells, the sweep of my headlights over the fields where broken corn stubble poked up from the snow. More than that, I knew the hearts of the people in those homes. I knew the work they did—oil field roughnecks, refinery workers, farmers, factory workers, teachers. I knew some of them were just barely holding on, going from paycheck to paycheck hoping they’d be able to make ends meet. I knew the sounds of the tissue-thin pages turning in their Bibles, and the corn popping on a gas stove, and the cold water pumped from a cistern, and the slap of a straight razor against a leather strop, and a twelve-gauge shotgun fired at rabbits, squirrels, deer, and quail. I knew the prayers said around the kitchen table before a meal, and the slap of cards played out in a game of euchre or pitch, and the crack of the cue ball at the pool halls.
I could do on and on about all that I realized that night when I let those Christmas lights invite me into the homes I passed. I could tell you how I started to feel a sadness because the lights were on in those homes, and I was out in the cold, tired of driving and eager to be in the my mother’s brightly lit house among people who loved me. Once I was back in Fayetteville, I tried to give a character in one of my stories that feeling of sadness that came from looking at those Christmas lights. It wasn’t a very good story, but the point is, maybe for the first time, I was writing about the places and the people I knew so well. I’d always thought no one would be interested in my stories of the small towns and farming communities of southeastern Illinois, but the night I felt that sadness was an important night for me as a writer. It was the start of everything that would eventually follow.
If you’re a writer just starting out on this life-long apprenticeship to the craft of writing, maybe I can save you a little time. What are the worlds and the people you know most intimately? Write about them. Write about all you know—the work they do, the foods they eat, the hobbies they have, the way the sunrise looks at a particular season, the way the light falls at dusk. If you can’t make what you know best interesting, you’ll never be able to interest readers in what you don’t know. Write your worlds from the inside out, from the perspective of one who’s been there and knows the lay of the land.