“The writer is someone, who, embarking on a task, does not know what to do.” Donald Barthelme
I am reading Station Eleven by Emily St. Jean Mandel. Although I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, I haven’t really been curious about dystopian novels. But this book has me turning pages hungrily. One of Mandel’s themes is the persistence of the works of Shakespeare after the collapse of civilization. This got me thinking of what I know and what I don’t know and what to write about for story number eight.
What did Mandel know, I wondered, in order to write this so-readable novel? She looks blessedly young on the book’s back cover (b. 1979). Yet she writes confidently about Shakespeare, Toronto, BC’s Gulf Islands, pandemics, the life of an aging artist, multiple marriages, paramedicine, the end of civilization… and I am only on page 77. She mustn’t have “known” all this to start. Into the cauldron goes the writer’s research, experience, and imagination. Boil them together with a bit of newt’s eye and bat’s wing to produce fiction.
The old saw about “write what you know” keeps the writer in the silo of lived experience, starved for oxygen. You need all of it—research, imagination, experience, serendipity—to thrive as a fiction writer. One way to write yourself out of what you know and into what you don’t know is to use Peter Elbow’s loop writing methods described in Writing with Power. I decided to use the one where you sit down and write everything you think you know about a topic, then use that as fodder for a story. Mandel’s novel starts with a production of King Lear, so I thought why not use that play? I proceeded with interest.
What do I know about King Lear? Well not much. I studied the play in the late seventies with the late great Northrop Frye. I still have my Pelican Complete Works of Shakespeare with my fish bookplate dated 1978, the year I took my sole Shakespeare class at University of Toronto, Victoria College. Frye was an eminent scholar, yet I remember little from the class. I do recall his long pauses as we waited with baited breath, our pens raised, ready to record his wisdom. And the only thing I remember from his lectures was not even about Shakespeare—it was about music. He said that Bach’s Mass in B Minor was surely the voice of God speaking through the composer. As for King Lear, well I remember only that I loved that play the best. A few of the most famous lines stick with me, and I notice as I page through the play that almost forty years ago, my twenty-year old self carefully circled in pencil any mention of nature, natural, and unnatural. I must have written an essay on that theme.
But really, what do I know of Lear? I remember my father joking with me, the youngest of his three daughters, that I was his Cordelia. A rather odd comparison, as I think of it now, but I loved his rueful laugh when he said it. Then there was my first husband’s favourite line from the play, “Reason not the need,” from Lear’s speech in Act 2, Scene 4:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—
My then-husband’s occasional invocation of that line has stayed with me these many years. When frugality became a constraint, he would implore, “reason not the need.” Let us not reduce our lives to need, to scrape by on the drab thrift store clothes, to make black bean soup again. Even beggars need a bit of splurge and splendor. Let’s treat ourselves. You only live once.
But there you go. What do I know of King Lear? A long ago reading for a Shakespeare class almost forty years ago. Frye’s wavering voice. A remembered association from my father’s mouth that cast me, in jest, as his Cordelia. A line spoken by my ex-husband that reverberates still. Reason not the need. And a bleak sadness when I think of Lear, a “poor, bare, forked animal” on the heath.
It was an interesting exercise. I really don’t know much about Lear. An embarrassingly small amount of material, in fact. But I was able to gather enough together to start. I wrote what I know, and that will lead me into what I don’t know. A few shoots that might sprout a story that is more interesting than my experience. Perhaps research will lead to a character based on Dr. Frye. Perhaps a re-reading of King Lear that may lead to something. Or another listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor that might be fruitful. Or perhaps I can write a story with one character who always reasons the need and another who resists that dictum. Or a contemporary father who sees his daughters as modern-day versions of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and those joking nicknames become more real than he ever intended. So many stories waiting to be written.
I do not know what to do, exactly (see Barthelme), but I know that limiting myself to writing only what I know is the equivalent of Goneril and Reagan’s telling their father, you don’t really need all that finery, that retinue. I join Lear in saying, “reason not the need.” Let me read, research, imagine. Let me grab from a cornucopia of ideas, thoughts, books, facts, art, beauty, and experiences to make stories. Here I go into story number eight. I’ll report back later.