Know What You Write

Here is a fallacy about writing: Writers, at least writers of fiction and poetry, are experts in nothing. Or, at least, are experts in life in some vague and intangible way. We know the inner business and, so, need not be bothered with the mundane baggage of some worldly expertise. If I am to write fiction or poetry, goes the fallacy, I can find everything I need within myself. My experience, my ideas, my humanity. By this calculus, nonfiction writers have the inconvenient additional burden of actually having to learn something about the world before setting pen to paper. We poets and fiction writers already have all the raw material within us. This is patently untrue.

painted bunting

 

Consider:

bird, songbird, passerine

passerine, bunting, painted bunting

 

When I returned to Doña Eva’s house with my wife, years after I had lived in Mérida, Eva had new songbirds in the large cage in the kitchen window. Their tittering voices filled the room, and they hopped from perch to perch, alighting on the wire sides, the ceramic dish of seed on the floor, the beams of balsawood balanced like tiny rafters. A niece had brought these, she said, when I asked. They were male painted buntings. The females are pale green with a hint of blue at the scapular, but the males! Blue heads with red orbital feathers around the eyes; bodies bright red from throat to breast to flank; wings and tails a mosaic of green and blue, flushing toward iridescence. I had never seen a painted bunting before, except in books, but there is no mistaking them.

frijol colox

And this:

food, legumes, beans

beans, black beans, frijol colox

 

Eva was sitting at the table crushing beans for frijol colox. She reached into the olla, drew out a handful, crushed them in her fist, and returned them to the olla. She did this for the entire time that we sat and talked. When we came in, she stood and kissed us on the cheeks. And then we sat around the table, we three, while Eva crushed beans. We caught up. She called her nephew Beto, who lived behind the house. He came in, leaned against the open screen door until Eva scolded him for letting the bugs in. The ceiling fan spun.

I don’t know how many times I ate frijol colox at that table along with Beto, whom everyone called Gordo, and every other stranger transplanted to Mérida, the young people who left their villages to attend the university or to find work, the first in their families to do so. The families wanted to know that their children had someplace to have their almuerzo, someplace besides a cocina economica. So they sent them to Doña Eva, and we all ate there. Everybody had some connection, however spurious, through family or church. Those of us who could paid what it would’ve cost to buy the ingredients at the market. The rest was hospitality. Mondays: always frijol con puerco. Other days: bistek con papas, albondigas en caldo, pan de cazón, all served with either frijol molido or frijol colox. Once, I asked Eva what made the frijol colox taste so good. She replied, simply, “Lard.”

 

Yucatecan huipil

And, also, this:

clothing, garment, tunic

tunic, embroidered tunic, huipil

 

She seemed older by a little. Still small and sturdy, still—as always—wearing her huipil and apron. The only time I saw her in anything besides a huipil was at church on Sunday nights and, once, at a wedding. At church, she wore dresses that looked that they had been made for a smaller, stouter version of Donna Reed: subdued prints, conservative cuts, pleats, and low heals. She kept her white hair short, and it turned in irregular curls against her scalp.

Many Meridianos of Eva’s generation were the first in their families to speak Spanish as their first language, the first to leave behind the ancestral milpa, the first to cook indoors. Many of their parents remembered the long, slow end of the Caste War, in which the Mayan army rebelled against the hacendados, and drove the Yucatecan army off the entire peninsula except the walled cities of Mérida and Campeche. Many Meridianas of Eva’s generation still wear the huipil at home. Some still wear it out. Few wear it on formal occasions, so weddings in Mérida look like weddings in Miami and Michigan: brides in white, grooms in rented tuxedos, mothers and grandmothers of bride and groom in dark cotton dresses. Not a huipil to be seen. The only holdout the old men sitting in corners in their guayaberas, their Spanish specked with expressions from the old Yucatec Mayan.

 

There is no district of the world that is beyond the scope of the writer’s expertise. We must be experts in everything. We must know intimately every corner on which our gaze falls. The raw material is not within; it is without. Our task is to take the raw material, compress it, heat it in the kiln of our experience, our ideas, our humanity, and to, thus, render an expression that is both intimately specific and universal. It is within our own knowledge of humanity that we take the specific and make it universal, but without the specific there is no hope of universality. So unless you choose to write only about people and places that you have always known, to include only details that spring from the small fount of your personal experience, you will have to open your eyes. You will have to learn the whole world.

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