Write what you know.
As a teenager, I discovered this maxim and realized also that I knew… not much. I believed, though, that a) one could know everything, and b) a set of books fancy enough to use the “encyclopaedia” spelling must contain all the knowledge any writer could need. Enter our set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, big, heavy books bound in brown and gold. My parents had made a big investment in this set, financially and in shelf space. The 28 volumes took up a couple of yards’ worth of the bricks and boards that lined my father’s study. Alternating the short articles of the Micropaedia with the in-depth technical articles of the Macropaedia, I persisted through the letter A, but B proved beyond me. I suspended the reading project and the idea of serious writing for years.
Despite what should be a cautionary tale, I still seek out writing advice. I can get derailed, though, by my tendency to mix up the literal and figurative…
“Be voracious about collecting new words…” — Jess Zafarris
I woke up empty-bellied, my word-hoard depleted. I felt ravenous. My toes recoiled from the chilly floorboards. I squinted against the morning light and fumbled for my slippers.
“Person, woman, man, camera, TV.” —Voldemort
Window, chair, lamp, bedspread, cat. Plain food couldn’t provide the sustenance I needed. Wall, doorway, staircase, kitchen, carpet. My heart pounded as I searched. Then I saw it, slumped into the armchair. Five faded syllables. A trembling crossbar, collapsed counters and broken serifs, ascenders fallen. The tittle was missing altogether.
“It is in your hands.” Toni Morrison
I touched the thing with my pointer finger, the barest tap. It seemed as though it might crumble to dust at any moment. I thought of Toni and dead words “content to admire [their] own paralysis.” A serif twitched. I let the thing lie while I looked for the tittle, which had taken quite a bounce, rolling almost to the radiator. I chirped to it in its whistling, hoppy tongue, and at last it rolled onto my palm.
Its color had improved while I was away. At last I got it spread out over the top of the chair. I had to press just a bit to set the tittle atop its stem; it gave a brief squawk as it settled in. “You’re a fine, fine word,” I reassured the antimacassar. “Protecting generations of upholstery from gentlemen’s locks lacquered with the “incomparable oil, Macassar,” as the poet Byron put it. Representative of dusty Victorian propriety as well as the close-up messiness of beauty.”
“Words, words, words!” — Eliza Doolittle
I stroked its capline gently, and the word plumped and purred. I wasn’t as confident as my tone, still confused about whether it was antique or antiquated. Eventually my efforts were rewarded with a susurrus of snores. “Be right back,” I said, moving softly in the direction of the kitchen.