Teachers often tell their writing students to write what they know, but I, for one, would rather learn about the broader world than contribute to the public discourse on 30-somethings dating in New York. Research and imagination allow a writer to escape the narrow confines of her own concerns, so I encourage my students to widen their perspectives in whatever ways they can.
Yet there is sometimes a middle ground between writing what you know and writing what you don’t know: writing what you didn’t know you knew. Once a novel has made its way into the world all kinds of fortuitous connections spring up around it.
Consider this: while researching Revolutionary War–era Brooklyn, I learned that the occupying British forces commandeered a field at the East River’s edge for a cemetery. Unaware of the strength of the current, they buried their dead right up to water’s edge, and for years afterward the tide uncovered the gleaming, westward-facing skulls of British soldiers. After a suitable amount of time had elapsed, the field’s owner returned it to the cultivation of asparagus; the shoots he grew there were famous for their sweetness and succulence. Such a fact would resonate in the mind of Brookland’s dark-minded main character, so I put the asparagus field in the book.
Soon thereafter, I read Paul LaFarge’s novel Hausmann, or the Distinctions and was surprised to discover his protagonist traveling to the outskirts of Paris to purchase an asparagus field he wishes to use as a cemetery. When I asked LaFarge about the field, he said he’d happened across an account of this in his research and had taken it for his book. Now, there may be a deep, unexplored connection between death and asparagus (didn’t Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby build his model of the battle of Namur in an asparagus plot?), but I am just as intrigued that two people could, in researching two different places and eras, seize upon such oddly similar facts.
Other coincidences: When I first opened Stephen Wright’s Amalgamation Polka, I found that both Wright and I had given our protagonists virtue names (his is Liberty, mine Prudence) and that each character’s mother had fled her family of origin on principle and eventually died of grief. It seemed a greater coincidence that both mothers were named Roxana, though the name was more common in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is now. But the coincidence that stopped me still was a homely image: young Liberty, on his father’s knee, watching “the eternal drama of wood burning on the hearth where the wee orange people lived and capered among the crackling logs.” I recollect from my own childhood both sitting transfixed by natural phenomena and wondering at flame’s resemblance to dancing people; and there is always a frisson in seeing one’s own observation described in another’s work. But this moment of recognition was particularly, pleasantly uncanny because in an early draft of my book young Prue had sat with her father and watched what she believed were dancing spirits in the family hearth.
I excised the fire spirits along with some of their kin—an older Prue once saw the agency of the dead in the angry surf at Montauk, a place she doesn’t visit in the finished novel—because they competed with one of the book’s central images: Prue’s notion, in early childhood, that Manhattan, which she sees across the straits from her home on Brooklyn Heights, is the land of the dead and that the shades travel there on spirit boats. In editing, I came to consider this image strange enough that it needed to be singular, in the way one hangs a painting that requires stark attention on a blank wall. I also sought to balance the influences of the supernatural and the workaday in the book; Prue’s juvenile ideas about the afterlife do mark her, but Brookland also concerns bridge building and the manufacture of gin, subjects that are more of this world than not. But I have, on occasion, missed Prue looking into that fire. The moment was a piece of my own girlhood I’d briefly bequeathed her; and I couldn’t imagine writing another character who would require it.
So the pleasure of encountering that sentence in Wright’s book was half the satisfaction of ownership and half the satisfaction of recognizing that the image had never belonged to me in the first place. I suspect that writers commonly know such pleasures, though I’ve rarely heard them mentioned. A book, as a document, can record a single instance or strain of reasoning but not a total mental experience, as it may appear to. To its author, a book is a thick impasto of overwritings and erasures; perhaps one definition of a generous reader is one who strives to see all this complexity. But books also belong to a larger order than that of their authors’ (or readers’) conscious and semi-conscious realms: they suggest the generative power of the vast silence that surrounds all thoughts and utterances—what in Sanskrit is called the anahata nadam, or “unstruck sound.” How different a book seems if it is perceived as arising from and eventually returning to such a silence than if it is seen merely as a finite work in space and time. Such a reading accepts both the humanity of the author and the book’s organic nature, its incompleteness until a reader allows her own heart to sound its images and ideas. A book, then, is a collaboration between an author and her readers—individuals whose imaginations might never meet but for the serendipity of the printed page.
Such chance connections abound. My friends know I admire George Eliot’s work, particularly The Mill on the Floss, which I prefer to her better novels (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda) because it wrestles with a difficult protagonist and ultimately loses the fight. A few also know that in writing Brookland I sought to mimic Eliot’s long, discursive chapters, which follow their topics from beginning to end. (Fiction writers have most likely learned the white-space break from film, so the technique seems inorganic to an 18th- or 19th-century context.) When one early reader commended the book’s homage to Eliot, I asked if he was referring to this structure. “No,” he said; “I meant the distillery.” I must have regarded him blankly, because he went on, “You know: grist mill on the Floss, gin mill on the East River?” He was correct about the association, but I hadn’t considered it until then. This homely fact about my novel’s provenance came to me as revelation: a peculiar, if lovely, experience.
One’s own mind can certainly be a dark continent—otherwise we would have neither psychotherapy nor good advice from strangers—but I sometimes think the creative mind is a whole dark planet. Mining the unconscious for hidden interconnections is a vital component of fiction, one of whose great purposes is the weird business of verisimilitude: creating something that feels authentic from something that manifestly isn’t. Perhaps this is the deep truth of writing what one doesn’t know.
To return to the subject of teaching, I sometimes allay students’ fears about intellectual ownership by assuring them that even if they wanted to they could not copyright their story ideas. I tell them that ideas are not ours, but we partake of them; that writers work within a community of the thoughtful and the imaginative, which is partly to say that we speak for everyone and no one.
So if a lost image from my own novel comes to roost in another author’s book, or if something I write is obscure to me but meaningful to an observer, I take comfort. To think we hold proprietary interest in our subject matter is to take the short view. At the beginning of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein discounts the ownership of ideas: “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts. . . . Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.” Perhaps this is what it means to write and read fiction: to recognize that our individual experiences are most important as they resonate with those of other people.
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Excerpt from Brookland
I kept an eye trained ever on New-York, to learn what I could of that foreign place. The spire of her largest church rose higher than her trees, and her three- and four-story buildings,—veritable exaltations of window glass,—stood ranked up each morning to reflect the rising sun and the broad dome of sky. Yet the windows never opened, and I could neither see nor imagine families stacked one atop the other within. The bluffs of Clover Hill sang with birds and nickering horses, but no sound but the booming of ships’ guns came from across the river. The scents of ripe corn, horse dung, & my father’s juniper berries tickled my nose in summer, but though the westerly wind blew fierce, New-York had no smell but brine. All the life I could see was of people and horses in the immediate vicinity of the docks. Some other child would have thought nothing of these circumstances, but it was by these signs,—fueled, I admit, by that same natively dark imagination that later jumped to conclude, whenever you or Matty were late for supper, that you’d been drown’d in the millpond or run down by the stage; and woefully unchecked by parental intervention,—that I came to believe the Isle of Mannahata was, in fact, the City of the Dead. Once I had chanced upon this notion,—which another might have tossed out, but which I, made nervous by the sights & sounds of the war & by my mother’s weird rules governing my ingress and egress, determined could be nothing but the dark truth the world strove to hide from children,—everything I saw across the water added to New-York’s sepulchral mystery. All those goods that travelled thither were offerings to appease the shades; and it was a grim but necessary duty my father fulfilled when he loaded his barge with libations. That he bore the task so lightly & returned each time with the same blithe expression on his brow, I took for the mark of his good character and valour.