“Write what you know.” -Mark Twain
Good ole Mark Twain. A fellow Missourian with which I feel a certain camaraderie having visited his childhood home too many times to count on elementary school field trips and having walked through the very caves in which Tom and Huck ventured into trouble time and time again. Being a farm girl, I even spent an entire summer whitewashing a fence (true story).
When people hear my voice, they always ask me where I’m from. Midwestern accents are so varied and hard to pin down, unlike places like New York, which run so deep my 7 year old has picked up the sound of Brooklyn in so many of his daily phrases, all from his father and grandfather’s left-over accent.
I often jokingly pronounce Missouri, “Misery”, because my time and experience there is more aptly described that way. Not that I knew I was miserable then or that I endured such horrible hardships there, although I would be lying if I didn’t say I always wanted to leave and see the rest of the world, much to the dismay of my family who would have rather kept me close.
But sometimes clarity only comes with time and distance, and thankfully sunny California has afforded me that. I realize only now as embrace my adulthood, how powerful our subconscious is in recalling the dream I once had as a child in which a tornado came, picked me up, and whisked me off to California. It must have been those highly anticipated annual fall picnics on the living room floor to watch the Wizard of Oz that planted the storyline in my head and where both a life-long love for the movie, and a yearning to see more colorful worlds was born.
California was my Oz and Missouri was my Kansas.
I just didn’t know it yet.
I really didn’t know much of anything yet.
And here, now, I still feel like I don’t know much, that I don’t know what I know but I keep coming back to Mark Twain’s words, “Write what you know.”
I had the pleasure (I’m still giddy, in fact) of getting to chat with author Cornelia Funke this weekend at the premiere of the music storybook, Angel Heart. Cornelia wrote the story for this first of its kind masterpiece, created by my amazing sister, soprano Lisa Delan and composer Luna Pearl Woolf, which combines music and story together like never before. It is a heart-stirring story woven into a tapestry of exquisite voices, cellos, and mandolins that takes us on a journey as an angel finds a way to mend a girl’s broken heart. It’s full of beauty, pain, metaphor and meaning. It speaks to the premise that we are the most who we are when we are small. It has that ageless wisdom good writers always convey so clearly, that I covet the ability to express. I just want to know as a writer.
How do you do that?
I tend to be the introverted type, in keeping with the writer stereotype (apparently my psyche knew I was a writer before I did). In social situations and especially where celebrity is involved, I am not one to assert myself.
I feel like I would be a bother, like a fan girl,
like I would be so annoyed at me if I were you.
In my world, musicians and authors top my celebrity hope to meet them someday bucket list. Yes, I’ve been known to be embarrassingly and surprisingly star-struck like when I met my bass idol, Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I have stayed silent and speechless because of all of the above stated reasons not to assert myself. I’ve missed my opportunities and spent every day since then kicking myself for not asking the questions I really wanted the answers to.
So despite my discomfort at engaging myself in these types of situations and having vowed to not ever let celebrity keep me from asking questions when the opportunity presented itself, I found myself longing to pick Cornelia Funke’s brain about writing, about her secrets for just a little peek into the life of a real life author.
Truth is I’ve had a little writer’s block lately, now that I have publicly declared that I’m a “writer” in front of Facebook, so essentially, the whole world.
So, instead of my usual wallflower routine, I broke out of my shell and seized my opportunity for the incomparable Cornelia Funke to impart her wisdom and perhaps a bit of her amazing writing mojo on me. I lamented to her that I couldn’t conceive being able to write the imaginative things that she writes. That I have only been able to, again, in Mark Twain’s own words, “write what I know”, which lately, doesn’t feel like much.
My conversation with Cornelia wasn’t long but it only takes a sentence sometimes. You know how good writing is (do writers speak in printed sentences?) I envision the words coming out of her mouth, each letter a click of the key of an old manual typewriter until it arrives at the end of the sentence complete with a period and a “ding”.
“Well, what you know is different for everyone.”
I don’t have to know what everyone else knows?
I always felt like I was missing some essential element required for me to be a legitimate “writer” because despite doing a great deal of it as a child and adolescent, this writing thing still feels new to me. My wings are still tender and fragile and I’ve been afraid to fly too far out of my comfort zone. I have declared myself a writer while some part of me holds this notion that I can’t be because I’m ………
Fill in the blank with all of my insecurities and reasons I tell myself I couldn’t possibly be legit, oh, you are just a nurse, or just this or just that. Putting myself in a box like we so often do.
You mean I can just know what I know and that’s enough?
Being what I already am is enough?
This is revelatory.
How can something so simple become so complicated? Well, maybe I have a history of complicating things but now that I know that I don’t have to know everything, it means it’s ok to know a little. Enough to know that if I can’t write about anything I can always write about writer’s block. Borrowing words of wisdom from Charles Bukowski, “writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all”
So here I go.
I’m writing, Charles Bukowski. I’m writing, Cornelia Funke. I’m writing, Mark Twain. Dani Shapiro, I’m still writing……
And in doing so I realize that what I know is— I haven’t been reading.
In becoming a writer and facing my first bout of block, I have discovered all these “things” that I should be doing. Getting a good chaise lounge, writing what I know, and oh, there’s the reading thing, which I have become increasingly bad at as my sleep debt continues to accumulate, evidenced by the ever-darkening circles under my tired eyes.
So I keep trying to direct my sails, to fill them with the wisdom of writers that have come before me. Maybe this is why I love quotes and poems so much (the likelihood of me falling asleep reading them is small).
But my Amazon account has had a big influx of purchases recently as I start to crave the visceral sensation of a physical book in my hand. Having had Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing, on my preorder list for a month, I was thrilled to finally receive it (it’s beautiful!) and to crack it open. To find it chock full of the same wisdom imparted by Cornelia, and Charles Bukowski, and by my beloved Mark Twain. Oh, and it does not disappoint and I’m only 92 pages in (sure to be my writing Bible).
Writers that have paved the way for those of us who have no idea how this is done are showing me what I know. It’s not the same as what you know, or what they know or knew.Perhaps it’s the same secret Cornelia was alluding to. That it’s in using all these things we know collectively that something special is spawned.
So what is it that I’ve come to know in my 39 years? It isn’t the distant lands that I’ve dreamt of. It isn’t munchkins and poppies and wicked witches, although I have known a few of those. It’s the things that we all share that I know. I know regret and sorrow, pain and loss. I know joy and bliss, and love and longing.
I know I have a weakness for sweets and a confusing Missouri accent.
I know that when I write I sit at the kitchen table in my favorite and slept-in Radiohead t-shirt and drink cold coffee and feel blissfully happy as my children build things out of legos and distract me at my feet.
I know I can’t stay awake to read a book but I will keep trying because it’s making me a better writer. I know I never want to stop evolving, to stop growing. I know I don’t want to put myself into a box, or be labeled, or label myself with things that I never was, or no longer am, or ever want to be. It’s the human experience that I know.
It’s through the life I have lived, as words tumbling out onto the page after having been trapped inside for so long. It’s through letters, made into words, made into sentences strung together to the rhythm and music of clacking keys that I’m experiencing my life in color for the very first time.
I didn’t find it over the rainbow because I never made it there. I didn’t need to. It’s right here on this page, literally and ironically as life so often has it. Right here.
In black and white.