Cracking a Writing Chestnut

One of the most prevalent writing chestnuts is “Write what you know.” I heard Jonathan Odell speak before I read his book, The Healing. In his own self-deprecating humor, he called attention throughout his talk to his own description as a middle-aged gay white man who grew up in a Southern segregated community. The protagonist in The Healing, who is telling her own story in the days before and after The Civil War, is an African American mid-wife.

Transported into the reality of her time and experience as I read, I didn’t think to wonder about the irony of the “write what you know” idea until I was finished. Instead, I became caught up in that time and place and in the wisdom of the  elders –
•    Gran Gran: Creation is filled with soul-sick folks, colored and white, never knowing where they belong. They tangle everybody else up in their grief.
•    Aunt Sylvie: Tying a scrap of red on a straw broom don’t make it no Christmas tree.
•    Aunt Sylvie, on talking when one should be listening: Flies can’t fall in a tight-closed pot.
•    Polly Shine: When God wants to punish us, he gives us just ourselves to care for.
•    Polly Shine: A flapping tongue puts out the light of wisdom. And that tongue of yours could put out a house fire.
•    Polly Shine: Can’t do it in your hand until you see it in your heart. Like going to a river to fetch water without a bucket.

So is the old chestnut wrong? Not really. While Gran Gran is almost as totally opposite to Jonathan as one could get, he did write what he knew. He knew from years of research that he said was more enjoyable than the actual writing. He knew from sitting listening to an elderly African American woman who had stories stored in her mind and heart waiting for someone to ask. He knew from choosing as his first readers those who came from that culture and paying attention when they told him he got it wrong. The result is a story that is not Jonathan Odell’s but Gran Gran’s.

A few years ago, I recommended a book by an almost unknown author to our library and to any friend who would listen. I was one of many who joined that bandwagon, proving the wisdom of another writing chestnut, “The best kind of publicity is word-of-mouth.” That book was The Help. I’m predicting a similar fate for The Healing. And if you should have a chance to hear Jonathan speak, take it.