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.

Mortality up close and personal

by Pablo Garcia

One of the things that I love about being a writer is that no experience is wasted.  The mundane, the painful, the joyous, the shocking, the quiet…every moment has something to teach us about reality, and can give us a touchstone of truth that will be the foundation of our fantasies.  Even the darkest times can give us amazing stories.

Let me give you an example.

The first year we lived in Chicago, I worked for a funeral home as a “Family Services Counselor.” The title makes it sound like the job I wanted it to be: being a resource for the families after the funeral to make sure their continued needs were met.  In reality, though, the title was what most terms in the funeral industry are: a pretty label on a not so pretty reality.  Basically I was in sales.  I was supposed to use the recent experiences of the bereaved as leverage to sell them pre-need funerals.  Now mind, I think pre-need funerals are a Good Thing.  Funerals are expensive, stressful, expensive, bewildering, expensive, complicated, and expensive.  It is the last thing people who have suffered a loss should have to deal with, and the first thing they have to think about…and fight about…and pay for…if things haven’t been previously addressed.  I believe in this service.  But trying to coax people into it felt ghoulish to me.  It wasn’t the only reason I only lasted a year before I quit, but it was a big reason.

And yet, to this day, that year of misery is still giving me material for stories.  There was the funeral of a three month old baby that died of SIDS, and what it was like for me to see that when I myself was pregnant with my daughter.  There was the man dying of cancer whom I met while his family made arrangements, who had sunken cheeks and wide, glassy eyes, who was in a bright white hospital room with buzzing fluorescent lights and a septic smell.  There was the brother who described in frank, flat terms what it was like to find his sister dead in a pool of blood after an overdose, and how he kept her 13 year old son from seeing her.  I saw countless death certificates, autopsy reports, and bodies laid out in caskets post-embalming and on long silver tables pre-embalming.  Bits and pieces have been finding their way into my stories ever since.

It’s hard to look at tough times as a mine for future fiction, but sometimes that knowledge helps me stick it out.  Bad childhoods, bad relationships, bad career choices.  Live it up, then write it down.

The tension between the known and the unknown

Photograph by Martin Vlach. Click the image to see more of his work. Hat tip Beautiful Decay.

My mentor Paul McComas has a principle he calls the Tightrope of Disclosure.  Give too much information to the reader and the writer falls off one side into obviousness and will bore the reader.  Give too little information and the writer falls off the other side into obscurity and will confuse the reader.  The sweet spot is between those two extremes, a fine line where the reader has just enough information to know what’s going on and be intrigued, to want to read on, discover more. The writer should be sure the reader knows what’s happening, and then let them figure out the why.

I think this principle can also be helpful in other artistic media.  Consider the photograph above.  Much of its power is in its simplicity.  Its aesthetic grace draws us in, and once we’re in it tickles our brains.  We know the what, the men standing silently in a forest shrouded in mist, but we don’t know the why.  We’re prompted to ask questions, and then to imagine answers.  And those answers are going to be different for everyone.

I love using images like this as writing prompts, but it also inspires me to infuse my own art with mystery.