#12: On Gathering and Digging

I’m at my parents’ house in Michigan, and will be here a few days more before returning to Brooklyn. Friends and people I’ve met on my month-long road trip have asked me whether I plan to write about it. It’s seems like good material, they’d say. And yes, it is, but this week I want to talk about a misconception – or rather, a misunderstanding – about writing a book; that writing a book necessitates amassing a store of extraordinary experiences upon which you can draw. I’ve talked to people who’ve said they’d love to write a book sometime in the future, but not now. I don’t know what I’d write about – they’d go on – I feel like I haven’t lived enough life. Because once you’ve lived enough life and had enough adventures, the thought goes, then you’ll finally have something interesting to write about.

Saying that you need to live enough life to write a book is like saying you need twenty million dollars to make a movie. The money enables you to make a wider set of potential movies, and the experiences enable you to write a wider set of potential books, but in neither case are the resources a requirement. Great movies have been made for less and great books have been written about less. And unlike money, you accumulate experiences by simply being a non-dead human being. By going to your day job you really don’t like that much you accumulate experiences. By sitting in a room and doing nothing you accumulate experiences. In the however many years you have been alive, you have had that many years of experiences. You have experienced wonder and glee and love and embarrassment and jealousy and frustration and betrayal and regret in varying levels. You have experienced being young and growing less young. You have felt a part of something and felt left out of something – perhaps of the same thing. Your experiences may be commonplace, but it’s their emotional core, not their circumstances, that are the raw materials of the writer.

This I believe: the primary work of writing is less gathering than it is digging and cracking open, because often the truest, most resonant of these experiences are buried the deepest. They’re the ones that have sunk into the terrain of memory by the erosion of time, sometimes by your own will; the experiences over which you’ve laid thick beds of soil; the experiences over which you’ve planted a garden or built a house. The corollary to “write what you know” is that you already know enough.

Some of the main perpetuators of the store-of-experiences concept seem to be experienced authors. I’ve heard some authors say that they had no right writing novels as early as they did, that they hadn’t lived enough to write. It’s not that the idea is untrue, but rather that it is an observation that can only be made in hindsight, and overlooks the fact that they would not be in a position to make such an observation had they not started early.

When you start writing with what you have, you first reach for the experiences sitting on the surface. You find those and use them in your stories, and then you’re forced to dig. You get better at digging. You get a feel for the land and learn where the soil is soft. You learn to spot the distinguishing marks that new experiences leave behind, whether they blaze down from the sky in a streak of fire or fall with little commotion in the dark of night. And just when think you’ve excavated all that you can excavate … that’s the moment you discover a new vein, a new treasure. Because everything you need is already there, in your field, deep underground, buried.