“Write what you know.” Common-sense common wisdom for writers. Headline advice…dispensed as many times as there are words in the dictionary.
What I have to say about that is certainly not news…nor is it in any way earth-shaking (or paradigm-shifting). Just an observation sparked by something I saw on PBS this week. I’ll get to that later, but the core of what I want to throw out there is this: writing effectively and evocatively is not a question of writing what you know. Good writing often rises from the still-warm ashes of memory and experience, yes, but it is empowered by passion and imagination and risk.
And “risk” is perhaps the most important element of all. Every time a writer sits down with a blank space to fill, he or she risks exposure, ridicule, and worse…indifference.
Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Sportswriter Red Smith said “Writing’s easy. All you do is sit down and open a vein.”
Ray Bradbury said “Find the Metaphor.”
All have bearing on this discussion, but finding the metaphor that drives your writing doesn’t necessarily depend on what you have experienced directly. It depends on what shapes, directs, fires and inspires your thoughts. your feelings and your imagination.
Which brings me back to PBS. A State Parks special on PBS this week opened my eyes to a view that I enjoyed most of my young life, without ever knowing the truth behind that experience. Angel Island.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I occasionally visited Angel Island on a cub scout hiking trip or family getaway picnic. What I learned just this week is that historically, Angel Island was considered to be the “Ellis Island of the West.” In the early part of the 20th Century, Chinese immigrants were taken from the point of their arrival in San Francisco harbor and detained at Angel Island “for investigation under the auspices of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882” for weeks, months, sometimes years before either being allowed to enter the city or being deported.
In 1974 the forgotten, dilapidated station house and barracks were scheduled for demolition – an act that would have effectively buried all signs that what happened there did, in fact, happen. Carvings were found on the walls of the barracks…Chinese characters carved into the soft pine planks…poetry left behind by those held against their will – “detained” on Angel Island.
Like the story of the Japanese internment camps, this story draws attention to one of our less-than-prouder moments as a state (and indeed as a nation), but it serves a different purpose for my discussion here. These marks reflect an experience – pain, hope, loss, determination. Just seeing the pictures speaks to the writer in all of us…the writer that eavesdrops on such everyday experiences as conversations at a lunch counter; or notices interaction in an elevator; or pays attention to the way people walk, or laugh or cry. That writer absorbs the story of Angel Island and begins to write a thousand stories in his or her head…stories that speak to the human condition, the American Dream, the inspiration and pathos and sobering reality of who and what we are.
Look around you. You don’t have to live it to love it. Risk.
Find the metaphor.
Found on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station and barracks:
Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox.
I intended to come to America to earn a living.
The western styled buildings are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them.
How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison.
Leaving behind my writing brush and removing my sword, I came to America.
Who was to know two streams of tears would flow upon arriving here?
If there comes a day when I will have attained my ambition and become successful,
I will certainly behead the barbarians and spare not a single blade of grass.