So often the advice to writers goes something like, write what you know. Whether it’s the swampy lands of Florida, the trenches of World War I, the slums of India, or the elite of New York City there is a novel about nearly any experience and location one can imagine. If I can’t travel and want to be in that country, I pick up a book. Suddenly I am in Paris or Milan, the Moors of England, or the gritty cities of Mexico. One of the reasons I loved to read as a child was the complete transporting effect of books. The sympathy I felt for the characters, the description of exotic locations, and the way I was suddenly a part of the story turned me into a voracious reader. Recently I picked up a copy of Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. Welty’s book is divided into three parts, Listening, Learning to See, and Finding a Voice. Welty tells us in her lovely prose about how she came to experience all three of these abilities while growing up in the south. She explains in Listening,
“How many of us, the South’s writers-to-be of my generation, were blessed in one way or another, if not blessed alike in not having gone deprived of the King James Version of the Bible. Its cadence entered into our ears and our memories for good. The evidence, or the ghost of it, lingers in all our books. In the beginning was the Word.”
In Learning to See she describes a car trip with her family.
“The journey took about a week each way, and each day had my parents both in its grip. Riding behind my father I could see that the road had him by the shoulders, by the hair under his driving cap. It took my mother to make him stop. I inherited his nervous energy in the way I can’t stop writing on a story. It makes me understand how Ohio had him around the heart, as West Virginia had my mother. Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their destinations.”
Kevin Powers is another author who has written what he knows. The Iraq War from 2004-2005. His novel, Yellow Birds, is a stunning addition to the war novel genre. Powers is a poet, filling his first novel with humanity and beautiful pain. Here is a little excerpt,
“I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me, how I felt like a coward until he screamed into my ear, “Shoot these hajji fucks.” I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire, seeing him shooting too, smiling the whole time, screaming, the whole rage and hate of these few acres, alive and spreading, in and through him.”