I once wrote a novel. I’m not ashamed to tell you it sucked. I have a printed copy of it. Somewhere. I just went to my bookshelves to take a look at it, mainly because the best thing about it is the cover photo by a friend of mine, but I couldn’t find it. That means that I either tossed the thing or hid it where no one will ever run across it. Apparently, that includes me.
It was a period piece, written about another time and place, another culture, another mindset. For a long time, I thought I must have violated the “write what you know” adage (which, by the way, most likely didn’t come from Mark Twain, despite what you may have heard). I thought that I’d strayed so far from what I knew that I was just hopelessly stabbing in the dark, hoping to hit something that made some sense.
I think now that if I were to find it and force myself to actually read it, I’d probably find that it just needs editing, perhaps badly, and maybe some more of what I know tucked in here and there. Because I did, in fact, write what I know. I wrote about confusion, and searching, feeling foreign, alien, out of step with everything. I wrote about ignoring all that and plowing forward anyway, often with unpleasant and sometimes catastrophic results. I wrote about being afraid and pretending not to be. I wrote about finding truth in unexpected places, and sometimes denying that.
I wrote what I know.
That adage wasn’t intended to urge those of us who write to stick to autobiography. Honestly, that would be pretty darn boring for most of us. Instead, its intention is keep us authentic, genuine. Write what we know, not what we think about.
When we really know something, we know it much deeper than in our heads — we know it in our hearts.
We’ve all had literally millions of experiences, and in each of those we’ve known what it feels like to have them. We’ve known loss, love, fear, anger, surprise, anxiety, excitement, shock, sadness, grief, delight … you get the idea. How we experience those emotions, how we feel them, is different for each of us, built upon years of our own experiences, each one altering the essence of who we are, sometimes dramatically and sometimes so subtly that even we don’t notice the change.
And then there are the experiences, the events, the emotions, the things we know so well that it fills our entire being. It’s how we get body memories, how a smell can trigger an entire world of memory, of knowing.
That’s why I have this whole new website now, The Old Roads. It’s not gonna give you any deep insights into our political system, or Ukraine’s political system, or the political system we wish we had. It may get maudlin, it may get philosophical. But mostly it’ll be a trip to the past, where we were and how we changed.
It’ll be about the bend in the road, the bend in the river. It’ll be about buying dark Concord grapes at a mountain roadside stand, or jumping in the car when a black bear comes out of the creek to see what’s at the picnic. It’ll be about what’s under the water and why, and how a muddy path becomes an asphalt ribbon and then crushed limestone. It’ll be about places I’ve been, places I’ve heard of and places that may never have been there to begin with. It’ll be about a yellow brick road and a one-lane wooden bridge.
It’ll be about things I know, things I’ve forgotten and things that come racing back from an overflowing stream bed. It’ll be about me in a way an autobiography never could.