Write What You Know — and Know Thyself

In her book, Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott writes, “Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them… each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways. One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in? … the point is that you need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with.”

Hmmm. While Ms Lamott is explaining how to discover and develop characters in stories, it seems to me that she’s also putting some advice out there for me, as a writer, to help me discover who I am, discover my own character. Because I’m pretty sure that if I can’t get to know myself, how am I supposed to really get to know any other characters I write about? Especially if I’m to listen to the old adages, “Write what you know” and “Know thyself.”

If I need to know myself in order to really know my characters, I guess that means I need to discover what my personal acre looks like, what I’m growing, what the shape my land is in. I need to find out more about my interior life — or do I? Why do I feel fear when I say this? How far are we supposed to explore within ourselves? How do I tend to my emotional acre? And in exploring my interior life, am I not simultaneously reaching out for transcendent Life? How much of the exploration and development is my responsibility and how much is to be submitted to the God I seek?

Truly, though, I do want to know if I’m growing and what kind of shape my acre is in. Or do I? Maybe it’s really messy, chaotic, even scary — like Mac’s garden in “The Shack,” though that turned out to be an amazing “living fractal.” Or maybe it’s dry and non-producing. Maybe the soil is barren or it’s not being watered enough or it’s so full of weeds that the good seeds can’t break through. Or maybe it’s like my little backyard garden this past spring: reasonably good soil, and a good mixture of sun and rain, and lots of plants growing. Only they were mostly volunteers, and I didn’t know/recognize what most of them were, and therefore I was nervous about pulling any of them in case they might be something good and useful. Meanwhile, there didn’t seem to be much growth of the seeds I’d planted a couple weeks earlier, but maybe there just hadn’t been enough time yet for them to grow, though some were sprouting. Yet in the end, I had a garden that was a wonderfully crazy mixture of unexpected volunteers and the plants I’d carefully planted and nursed along from seed.

And that’s how it seems my self-knowing is. So maybe it’s not hopeless. But are You going to “weed” my heart and mind, or is that my responsibility? Or are we to do it together?

And how do I translate this slowly growing understanding of my own small acre to the characters I seek to know and understand in my writing?