Last week I wrote about the fear of Mom reading my work. This week I’ll take on another population of readers who worry me.
I once read somewhere that climbers don’t like to read books about climbing if they were written by non-climbers. I understand that, to a point, especially if we’re talking about how-to-climb sort of books. But when you’re talking about fiction, should a reader expect the writer to have experienced everything the characters face?
Sure, Melville worked on a whaling ship. Austen didn’t marry. And there’s the age-old rule (which some attribute to Mark Twain) that tells writers, “Write what you know.” The question is what that really means. Does it mean you must have grown up “knowing” your subject? Or can you acquire your expertise through research?
I’ll devote another blog to more details about the specific research I did in the course of developing The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife. In summary, I read a lot of books about the Seven Summits, Alaska, and mountain climbing. I visited Talkeetna and interviewed climbers and rangers. I flew up to Denali’s Base Camp in a four-seat bush plane and stomped around on the snow and inhaled the ridiculously pure glacial air. I asked a seasoned climbing guide to read and critique certain technical aspects of the novel. But that wasn’t all.
I’ve also hiked countless miles through muddy forests, among snow-laden mountain peaks, and across slippery slopes. I’ve raised three sons who sometimes seemed more comfortable on skis, or wearing climbing harnesses, than sitting at the dining room table. And I’ve otherwise engaged in various woman-versus-nature activities where I wasn’t so sure I’d survive. While I’ve never climbed Denali, I’ve encountered and undertaken scores of outdoors experiences which fueled my passion for the sort of landscape that appears in the book.
But it wasn’t really those experiences that gave me permission to write a fictional account of a woman attempting to summit Denali because this isn’t a story about climbing. It’s a story about life. If I’m supposed to write what I know, then I am indeed doing just that. I’m writing about life.
Like Lynn Van Swol, I’ve set goals for myself. With each passing year, I’ve learned to understand myself better than I did the previous year. I’ve made a lot of good decisions and had a lot of successes, but sometimes I’ve made some bad ones too. I’m not a big-group sort of person, preferring close relationships, and I admit I can be withdrawn in some circumstances, while I unexpectedly reach out at other times. I try to hold myself together but sometimes I have to let go. I love the outdoors even as it frightens me. And sometimes life just gets too big. Like Lynn, I have learned that I can’t always save others from their own failures and weaknesses, despite my best of intentions, and that, in the end, the person I should most worry about saving is myself.
So, I am the first to admit that I am not a mountain climber, and if a climber doesn’t want to read this novel because I don’t have the necessary qualifications, that’s all right with me, because that’s not the person this book is intended for. This is literary fiction; it’s a story about love and survival and place. It’s about asking the question of how far we should go to achieve our goals, and at what cost. It’s about being a human being (which, in case there’s any confusion about this, I indeed am). In fact, it’s my belief that sometimes a writer who’s one-step removed from a subject can actually bore deeper into the core of humanity by writing about a subject she doesn’t understand inside and out. It’s also my belief, based on the fabulous people I met up at Denali, that for every climber who doesn’t want to read this book, there’s another one who will enjoy it, appreciate it, and hopefully pass it along to friends and other readers.
Natalie Sybolt wrote an essay for Glimmer Train addressing the subject of writing what you know, and I think she summed it up beautifully. “When we say, ‘Write what you know,’ we should be talking about the interior. The crevices and courages of people. The frailties, weaknesses, heartbreaking beauty. This often will make people uncomfortable. It might also reveal something soft and tender about ourselves that we’d been hoping to protect, but that’s the only way to get to the realness, what we truly know. The end result will be something golden, complicated, and lovely.”