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You Don't Know Anything

“What are you an expert at?” my publisher asked me.

“Not much.”

To her credit, she has patience. While we discussed blog ideas, I recognized the sound of it. After years coaching ninth-graders to hone essay topics, then prompting (enticing, begging. bribing) them to finish their final drafts, I ought to.

“You spent a lot of time writing a book, right? You’ve got an English degree.” My publisher was encouraging. “You did research.”

She sounded really patient. Oh dear. Will there be a quiz?

Toni Morrison said this to her students. “I do not want you to write anything about your little life. I know you have been taught to write about what you know. I’m telling you, do not do that. You don’t know anything. So, I want you to invent” (American Masters, “Toni Morrison, The Pieces That I Am,” June, 2020).

By the time I heard that interview, I’d been inventing on the page for years. Mostly, I begin with whatever comes to me, usually a character or characters, the scene in medias res. There is no agenda, no theme, no plot, just an unspooling thread that rolls before me, at times bright, at others dim. I chase after it through a maze, uncertain of the terrors or treasures that lie around the corner.

I used to tell my students, “When I was your age, I knew everything. It’s been all downhill from there.”

What I’ve learned is that it’s all right not to know. Part of writing is finding out. My stories take place in the past, but I’m no historian. I comb bibliographies, pick through footnotes, read primary documents—but not while I’m writing the first draft. During those enchanted hours, I’m too busy pearl diving.

Of course, I’ve had to correct details and jettison others. This is later, while I revise and fact check. Rarely do those changes alter the plot.

Being a novelist is not about what I know, but what I must find out.

Thank you, Ms. Morrison.

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