August 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? … Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield.
– from “Don’t Write What You Know,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, the Atlantic Fiction 2011
I read these words while I was sitting outside the Lodge at Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon. We were there for two days for a dear friend’s wedding while the boys were three hours away at their grandparents’ house. We have never left them for that long before and after 12 hours of sadness and a bit of anxiety, I came to a place of peace. I came to the realization that they were having a blast.
Sitting there, looking up at those snow capped mountains, I also came to a place of homecoming. I came to another realization that even though I spent half my life on the east coast, it’s never been home to me the way the west is, where I’ve spent the other half of my life. I’ve been working so hard to make Virginia home, but that experience has been like walking with my head down, gazing at the cracks in the sidewalk. Virginia is just the ground floor of truth and trying too hard to love it is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It’s been like trying to deny my own discreet and infinite hunger.
But of course this is not about Virginia, is it? What I’m really talking about is my own tendency to try to drink from a block of clay rather than molding it into a bowl that can hold water.
This quote pertains directly to my own experience of writing fiction, of writing 50 pages and then being stopped by the paralyzing fear of being incompetent. And it also pertains directly to my own experience of living, of being afraid to dream, to rise past the ground floor of truth because I am afraid I will do it too well. That the world I envision for myself may be too lovely for someone like myself to inhabit. That to abide in the world I long for means making myself open to disaster. That sometimes, being available to beauty is the most terrifying thing there is.