Shakespeare, Anti-gravity, and Writing What You Know by P.T. Paul
Perhaps the most frequently given advice beginning writers receive is “write what you know.” On the face of it, that seems to be exactly the right philosophy to espouse, but I realized some time ago that it fell short of being as complete and piquant as one might think.
For example, one might ask, what exactly does a beginning writer, especially a very young beginning writer, know?
When I was ten years old, I picked up a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets and fell in love with an archaic form of English that no one I knew spoke, and hardly anyone I had ever met cared about. But I was lifted by this language, as if by anti-gravity, and felt as if I were floating when I read it. I knew this language—it spoke to me—and I was in love with poems about love. So, what else was there to do, except write sonnets to the Bard? In archaic English. Not always with complete understanding, but with an abounding ardor that surely leapt the gaps in my ignorance. I was writing my own anti-gravity words. I just knew I was on the right track.
My teachers were amused.
My friends were confused.
My siblings were chagrined.
My parents were concerned.
I was in love.
All was right with the world.
Until high school, when we read Shakespeare’s sonnets in class and discussed them ad nauseam, to my delight, but to the never-ending dismay of others. I remember holding on to my desk and watching a room full of teenagers as their faces seemingly melted, and their bones apparently dissolved beneath their skin. I realized that the same words that lifted me up had the power to pull other people down…at least until the bell rang at the end of class, at which time they were miraculously resurrected.
How could those same words—my anti-gravity words— practically leave others in human puddles on the floor? What I did not know in high school took me years to learn on my own by trial and error—that “write what you know” is only the first half of the equation. The unstated, but just as important, second half is “then, find your audience.”
When beginning writers ask my opinion of their work, I always try to remember how alone and rejected I felt when my teachers, family, friends, and classmates did not join me in the celebration of what was—I knew—the most wonderful use of words ever invented. If I am not lifted by the anti-gravity of a beginning writer’s words, I pray—at least—that my face never begins to melt, or my bones to dissolve. If I find myself at a loss to understand or appreciate what these new writers have written from their souls, I hope that I have the grace and wisdom to tell them, “I’m not really familiar with this subject/genre/style/format/form, but we can probably find someone who is.”
As president of the Pensters Writing Group, I consider it my job to help members find their voices—and their audience—whether it be within our group or outside of it, and state organizations are an invaluable resource. I encourage membership in groups like the Alabama Writers’ Forum because they are gatherings of writers from diverse backgrounds, and if one cannot find like-minded souls within one’s community, the next step is to look outside of it. I always hope that these new writers will walk into a conference room one day and find others floating from those same anti-gravity words that lift their own feet, hearts, and pens. And, further, I hope—I know—that when they find these floating fellow writers, they will have found their audience.
P.T. Paul, B.A., M.A., is president of the Pensters Writing Group and an award-winning poet and prose writer. Her book To Live & Write in Dixie is available from Negative Capability Press.
(Photo by Megan Carey)