two months ago my favorite publishing company–torrey house press–approached me with an idea for a book, and asked me if I would be interested in taking on the project. let me clarify: they approached me with a topic. a one-word topic, a topic that they said I could take on and write about in any way that inspired me. sounds great, doesn’t it? sounds like a dream job, sounds like something any writer with half a brain should say yes to.
so I said yes, (because I appear to have–sometimes if not always–about half a brain). and thus I find myself writing a book about wolves.
and it is going to be a damn good book.
I’ve been researching like crazy for the past two months, reading and interviewing and traveling to yellowstone and missoula and bozeman, thinking and feeling and synthesizing it all . . . and I am creating an incredible book about something I never even knew I might care about. at least, I’m creating this incredible book when I can tear myself away from the never-ending research.
about a month into my indoctrination-by-overload into the world of wolves, I had eight books stacked on my table and I needed a bike ride. along the route, my biking buddy bob was listening to my current-and-future wolf reading list, and he said to me, “back in college, a professor once told me–after listening to all of the research I’d done–just start writing.”
so I just started writing. and I’m still writing, and researching, and reading, and continuing to write.
there are numerous books about wolves already out there: you can read about the reintroduction of wolves into yellowstone, you can read the science, you can read books with amazing pictures, you can read about people who camped and lived with a wolf pack for six years. mine will be nothing like these: they’re already out there. mine is a personal story, a personal journey, with universal application. it’s a book about wolves, and it’s also a book about what it means to be human, in a world with wolves.
and it’s getting written. slowly. there’s more research to do, more experiences to be had, more people to talk with. but I’m remembering to write. because it’s an awful lot like bicycling: nothing happens when you don’t pedal. and once you begin pedaling, your destination comes closer and closer, one pedal stroke at a time.
one day you’ll want to be reading my wolf book. because not only am I an excellent researcher, but I’m a darn good writer and I’m going to keep writing, one word at a time, each day bringing my destination just a little bit closer, and closer, until one day, the wolf book will be ready for you and I will begin writing something else.
it seems obvious that one should write what one knows. a gardener will write a better gardening book than I; a fly fisherman is going to write a better book about flies and ties and rivers than one who doesn’t fish. not only will a writer spend less time researching a subject they’re familiar with, they will also write with an insider’s perspective and hopefully an insider’s passion; they will write with more intimacy and thus create a better book.
this is not to say one cannot write about what one doesn’t know: research combined with imagination and inspiration opens worlds of wonder for a writer caught in their spell. I find myself lost in magical realms when given a little knowledge and a creative whirl. as intensely direct and fulfilling as it is to write about your areas of expertise, to wander into new experiences offers gifts you can neither anticipate nor predict.
but there is a different way of writing about what you don’t know, one in which I’m currently snarled, one which I find extremely challenging if I let myself think about it. it’s the task a writer faces when writing fiction; the task of letting the story evolve on its own. of knowing that you don’t yet know the outcome, but must write anyway.
perhaps there are authors who design a storyline before they write a word, who know what each character will face and say and when. who know the movement and resolution, and only need to fill in with words and minor details. I am not that author. I begin wherever I’m inspired to begin, and let everything evolve from there. I may have a general message or theme, or not. I may have a few characters in mind, or only one. I often visualize a setting, but it may become just one of many. I cannot always know where my book is headed.
and thus I end up writing what I don’t know.
I would rather be able to outline the entire project and to know exactly where I’m headed . . . but apparently I don’t work that way. what I’ve found is that I need to firmly grip a huge hunk of faith and to trust that it will come to me. time and again I begin writing about one thing, say, a character sitting on a rock beside a river, and end up somewhere completely unexpected, say, at his parent’s home in grinnell, iowa, writing about his father’s search for a journal at the town stationery shop. I can’t always know where my mind, heart, and pen are going to go.
I want to. if I’m not going to write about what I know well—my passions—then I want to do oodles of research and outlines and predictions and planning. I want to know where I’m going. I fight this desire every time I put pen to paper, and force myself to sink deeper into that subconscious level that knows everything about every story I’ll ever write. that–as julia cameron describes it–river of creativity that lies deep within us, that place which knows better than we do exactly what we desire to create.
once again it comes down to faith. trust. letting go and letting God, or letting go and letting your true, inner self take over. which is the right thing to do whether you’re writing about what you know, what you’re not certain you know, and what you’re certain you don’t really know.