The Written Life

I’ve been reflecting on that old chestnut about how you should write what you know. The theory goes — familiarity lends more layers to the telling, lets details seep through and generates the confidence it takes for the pen to focus on the craft of language and drive a narrative arc. Thus teachers encourage eight year-olds to write about dinosaurs, their big brothers, and summer vacation. It helps explain why memoirs multiply; what do I know better than myself?

But here is my secret finding… is so much less work to write what you know.

If I just report what I see, hear, remember, think, say, and ….feel, if I sleuth these things and note them synapse by synapse, and reflect it, I am done the work of writing. I don’t need to invent thrilling but plausible plot lines, or role play with half-developed characters, or design contorted layers of themes and meanings. All the elements of the drama are already there, and whether you find them compelling or not, they are so internally cohesive and consistent that the writer is just a bit player — a mere interpreter — and she learns the meaning just as you do, when she hears the words.

A friend of mine once took a class with Annie Dillard, whose weekly assignment was for each person to go to a place, sit and watch, collect fifty pages of handwritten notes, and then distill them down to ten pages of text to hand in. The gift of growing up a dissociated introvert is that I have thousands of pages of notes stored in my head.

Blue and I argued about this recently. He accurately senses that I am quite separated from myself when in this hyper efficient reporter mode. He knows how convenient an excuse it is to numb my appendages for a day, week, month at a time while I take these mental notes, in order not to feel other things. He is suspicious about my motives since I have been going through a rough stretch at work and in sessions these past few weeks. He knows I could flip out of this state at will, but don’t because it is so conveniently painless and pleasant at times like this. I experience dissociation, in part, as a kind of yoga practice. Over the years, I became so adept at compartmentalizing bits of myself that my ligaments have become like taffy. Sometimes, even Blue recognizes that as a useful skill.

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