Write what you know. We’ve heard the advice a million times, but we don’t necessarily understand what it means. We think it means write about our first-hand experiences. And then we say, but my life is boring. I don’t have interesting experiences to put in stories. Which is a problem, because it stops us from writing. But it’s even worse when it doesn’t stop us from writing. Because no one needs to read our thinly-disguised, tedious memoirs (that’s what we have blogs for).
So let me remind you that what we know comes from much more than just what we experience first-hand. What we know is part experience, part research and part imagination. In my first book (Who is Killing Doah’s Deer), there’s a bit about a teenage girl, Clara Ederle, a Siamese twin living in the Pine Barrens a hundred years ago. I wrote this young girl’s diary. It is, in my opinion, one of the better things I’ve written. And yet I promise you, I have no first-hand experience of what it is like to be a teenage female Siamese twin living in the backwoods in the early 1900s. I’ve never even kept a diary. But I knew who this young girl was. I knew her hopes and her dreams. My knowing came from some combination of experience and research and imagination. (And a little bit of luck). But the point is, I knew what it was to be a Siamese twin girl. To be this particular Siamese twin girl. It may sound odd to you, but when I wrote that character, when I wrote her diary, I was writing what I knew. And what, you might ask, sparked this knowing, this odd mixture of experience, research and imagination? Where did the story idea originate? From a comment I heard on the radio many years ago, a young woman, a conjoined twin with aspirations of becoming a country-western singer. Her sister was not part of the act, was not on stage with her when she performed. Think about that for a moment. Her Siamese twin sister was not on stage with her.
Where do story ideas come from? They come from anywhere. They come from everywhere. But we never know when the universe will choose to reveal a story. So, if we’re not paying attention, we’ll miss it. We have to open ourselves up to the universe, in all it’s conjoined glory.
And here is the final entry in the diary of Clara Ederle, as recounted in my first book, Who is Killing Doah’s Deer?
May 11, 1930
Abigail’s cough worsens. The doctors will not say, but I fear she has pneumonia and her days have dwindled to a precious few. Abigail has lived a full life. She has known the applause of the audience and the love of an adoring husband and family. As have I. But the most profound blessing in my life, and I hope in hers, has been the bond of sisterhood. I know that many find our situation to be odd, but to me it is very ordinary, and at the same time, special. As I look back through these pages, I realize that Abigail has borne witness to every important event in my life and I hers.
It is funny the way the mind plays tricks. Re-reading many entries, I find that no trace of the event remains in my memory, but if I ask Abigail, she remembers every detail. Other entries remain so real to me that I can still feel them in my fingertips and in my soul.
I wonder what ever became of Sally. Did she find the love that I have found with Patrick, that Abigail has found with Benjamin? I fear for her tonight in a way I do not fear for Abigail or for myself.
I have spent my life as a twin and one extraordinary summer as a triplet. I have carried a secret, buried deep, from you, dear diary, from Abigail and from myself, but that summer, there were days, in the tent, that I performed unspeakable acts of entertainment with the gentlemen. I am not proud of this, but neither am I ashamed. If a man wanted to do something to my body, it was only my body, never my soul. I did what I had to in order to survive.
Still it was a glorious summer. I met Patrick that summer. And I saw the ocean. I will never forget that first sight of the endless blue-green water, the sun rising on a distant horizon. I understood that day just how large the world is and how important it is to find your place in it. For that summer, my place was in Captain Barlow’s tent in White Sands Beach and I did the best job that I could. But I always knew my place was here in Chatsworth and I have been blessed to live out my days here with Patrick and the children and with Abigail and her family. Only I wish I might see the ocean one more time!
Abigail’s cough racks her body with pain. She needs to rest. I must put down my pen and attend to my dear sister. Perhaps tomorrow I will take her outside to feel the warm spring sun on her face.