The penguin you don’t know

This interesting bit of taxidermy is part of a 19th century sea captain’s cabinet, now on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.  Just looking at it tells you two things: one, the taxidermist had never even seen a penguin; and two, neither had the sea captain.  They obviously made it look the way they thought it should due to what they knew of other birds, and got it hilariously wrong.

I often think of this bird when I write about an experience I haven’t had, things I’ve never seen, people I’ve never known.  “Write what you know” is a cliche, but no less true for its overuse.  On one hand, it can be interpreted too narrowly.  I may only have first hand knowledge of a small sphere of human experience, but empathy, extrapolation, and imagination allow my knowledge to be much broader.  Still, when writing about something that necessitates a stretch of knowledge, I need to remember the penguin, do my research, and be careful of my own preconceptions.  For one thing, I don’t want to look foolish.  But more importantly, I don’t want to mislead people who might be basing their own perceptions on my work.  It’s important that I do right by the metaphorical penguins, and by the people who might look at my atrocity and be convinced that a penguin is really just a goose that can’t fly.

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