Thursday, August 13, 2020

First Cousins

“Write what you know” is the hoariest piece of writing advice. Also the worst, when taken too seriously. Used responsibly and wisely it can add depth and nuance to any project.

 I got comfortable writing what I knew when I began the Penns River books. Previous efforts involved things I’d learned or come to know. Penns River I knew. I never had to learn it. I grew up there. Many of its qualities, better and worse, are as ingrained in me as my hair color.

 Like hair color, what you “know” changes over time. Perspectives that made perfect sense in your twenties now seem silly or even embarrassing. That doesn’t mean you deny their existence. Keep them in your toolbox. A character come along sooner or later who suits your discredited ideas. Not only can you use them, you get to look at them from the outside. There’s potential gold there.

 I wrote a few weeks ago about David Milch’s talks on “The Idea of the Writer.” In one he discusses the concept of looking for the first cousins of ideas. I’m still finding my way around this at the story level, but it’s already paying dividends on the character level as a great way to keep from being too “on the nose.” It’s particularly useful when dealing with a personal experience too painful or too close to write as well as you’d like. Often those situations become either preachy or heavy-handed, or the characters start to wallow in the writer’s self-pity.

I moved back into my parents’ house a few years ago when my mother couldn’t handle the day-to-day needs of Dad’s home hospice care. I wouldn’t trade most of that month for the world, as it was an opportunity for a son who’d moved away to show he cared about, and for, his parents. That said, I wouldn’t wish Dad’s last few days on anyone. Nor would I wish it on anyone’s family. (Home hospice care is a wonderful thing. The doctors, nurses, and clergy truly are angels on earth. There also comes a time when the professionals need to take over, both for the comfort of the patient and the sanity of the family.)

 I can’t write that story, nor work it into a larger piece. I can find its first cousin. I know what it feels like to watch someone you love become les vital until what’s left is hard to remember as anything except what he’s become. I know the odd mixture of relief and guilt that comes when he finally dies. That’s the “what I know” to write about.

 A friend of mine wrote a first-rate story for our writers’ group years ago about a homeless man. The story gripped everyone from the start until the ending, which fell flat. The consensus was to leave everything else alone and fix the ending. Suggestions flowed like a spring, as so often happens when critiquing something that’s thisclose.

Within minutes, our friend was almost in tears. It was a true story. The homeless man was her brother. She was way too close to make any changes without feeling like she was betraying him.

 The ending was weak because it was too on the nose, which made it land heavy. What she needed was the first cousin for it to kick ass. I wish I’d known about it then. Everyone could’ve left happy that night. 

1 comment:

TG Wolff said...

There are some things that are too close to write about. I don't know if time changes that, or if it changes that for everyone. There are some things I know I'm never write directly about. But I like the idea of 'first cousins'. Those events I can't write about definitely and help me empathize with characters. It's the reason I laugh, cry, get angry, etc., when I write.

I feel for the woman you talked about and it's a good lesson learned. When writing isn't about selling a story but healing your heart- let it lie.