I return to adage, as so often I do, because adage is what we seem to live by as much as any mythology, and the adage to which I return is something we have all heard many times before: writers must write what they know.
This concept, writing what we know, is as mysterious as it is seemingly obvious. What if the writer doesn’t know much? What do I, as writer, actually know? There is no shortage of reasons and factors to stop a person from writing, and the adages we attempt to live by can be as stifling and emotionally handicapping as any negative voice we’re already hearing.
So what does a person who wishes to be a writer actually know? What is the source of our material?
In his book Soul Mates, author and psychologist Thomas Moore discusses something that answers the question for me, and perhaps exposes a lifetime of source material for any writer willing to do the work not only of discovering this wealth, but also of improving their lives in the process. The concept centers on intimacy with our own soul.
Moore discusses this intimacy as a sincere, deeply contemplative understanding and, more importantly, acceptance of the complexities and “irrationalities” of our own soul. What is important to note here is that this understanding that the soul is irrational, and that many of the questions we have about ourselves and our lives will never be answered – may even be unanswerable – opens us up to life concepts that we may be unconsciously hiding from.
“Life will follow upon reflection, if the reflection is deep and patient enough to touch upon the central issues of the soul,” Moore writes. “We can trust that a genuine shift in imagination will result in a change of life”(40-41).
This is precisely the process for telling stories. What we further gain from reflection on our own soul is insight into the human condition as we perceive it. The rush we feel in inspiration is the current of energy behind truth and meaning. The more we perceive the closer we get to the all-important truth and accuracy of story and the value and meaning of life.
Moore continues with, “we don’t take an attitude of perfection; rather, we draw closer to those things that we feel as imperfect and let them be the openings through which the potentiality of the soul enters into life” (41).
Each of us posses a soul (according to Moore) that is imperfect and irrational. We strive to understand this even as something in us pushes to avoid it. It seems to me that this is the heart of story, the heart of what it is we seek when we write about our characters. The difficulty in writing, therefor, often comes in the resistance to getting at the honesty of our irrational selves. Speaking for myself, it’s scary to contemplate my own secrets, my own heart of darkness. By getting to know these things better, however, we understand ourselves, and our fellow souls, deeply and intimately. And our writing can do nothing but benefit from such a revelation.
Moore, Thomas. Soul Mates. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.