By J.S. Anderson
“Write what you know.”
For years I struggled with this common little sliver of advice.
What did I know? I was not a detective or former prosecutor. I was not a physician or politician or Olympian or scholar of history. What I knew well was health care administration for the elderly. But despite its many trials and tribulations, that subject matter just did not seem to be fertile ground for scintillating (let alone marketable) fiction.
I’ve recently published a novel, one which has been well received by those who’ve read it. It’s about history and mystery and monks, with nary a word about health care administration. But it wasn’t until the writing was done that I had my answer.
What do I know? I “know” an enormous amalgam of information learned through every experience of my lifetime.
I “know” how to get even more information, and how to target it to match my needs. Today, much of that information is available at my fingertips (though all too often not tempered or refined by the considerable virtue of personal experience).
But even more important, I understand how I see the world.
I “know” I admire the curve of an idea brought well and fully to completion: a remarkable building, a fine painting, a great literary work or even a particular car. I know the elation of hearing a truly exceptional voice singing pieces of the world’s great music. I know the vertigo of standing above a cliff of a thousand feet, and my deep regard for one who finds symmetry and beauty in the smallest of flora on the forest’s floor. I know my admiration for the aspirational aspects of religion and my disappointment in its mortal failures. I admire a sentence rhythmically constructed almost as much as the one that carries the surprising shard of insight. I admire the open mind and the search for answers, and have little tolerance for righteous certitude.
I have come to know how I respond to the world—visually, viscerally, intellectually and emotionally. That is what I know, and it provides me an endless universe for writing.
So, it’s on to the next questions: Am I imaginative enough, skilled enough, disciplined enough to use it well?
J.S. Anderson is the author of Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, published in 2013 by Lucky Bat Books. TED’s Associate Editor, Peter Gelfan, was the editor. Mr. Anderson is working on a sequel, Book of Hours: Peter’s Parchment. His website can be found here.