I was a teacher at a college on a small Micronesian island for a year. One of of my teaching duties was to attend college-related extracurricular events and presentations, which usually offered a wide range of foods. Micronesians are festive people: they like a good get-together, and they like to lard the table with a cornucopia of foodstuffs. At first, because I wasn’t familiar with many island foods and how they looked after preparation, I would always be the slow one in line, peering closely at some dishes. Why? Because I didn’t want to eat any servings of dog (and probably one that had tried to bite me while bicycling a few hours before the feast).
My dog-ducking wasn’t because I truly minded that Rover had been barbecued—I’ve written before about the spirited chases that mange-ridden canines gave me on my bike rides, and the improvised weaponry and tactics used to dispatch those hounds of hell. It’s just that the thought of eating dog unsettled me. In my culture, it’s OK to eat a 1,200-calorie triple cheeseburger, with enough salt to brine an Olympic pool. And in my youthful subculture, I spent an effortful afternoon making chocolate malts infused with ground peyote buttons.
But eating dog? No. Writing about eating dog? Oh my yes.
The old “write what you know” adage blows in so many ways that I’ll only enumerate a few: you often don’t know what you know. Does that mean you can’t write in a woman’s voice if you’re a man? Or you can’t write about the 19th century because yours is the 21st? That aside, I do think some writers, fiction or non, essayists or poets, neglect to plumb their histories for the page-producing pools that they are. I was out of my element in so many ways on that faraway island, but the combination of the odd and the exotic provided me with fodder for at least five published articles. I was a very enterprising shoplifter in high school, running a cottage resale business on the side. While I don’t recommend they teach my techniques in business school, I later turned my history of happy hands into an award-winning short story, and then turned the account of having won that short story contest into a published article. Ahh, the just desserts of an empire of crime.
The Write Stuff: You Already Own It
What I’m getting at is that in your own history, you’ve probably done a juicy fruit basket of unusual things. You’ve met people who have baffled you, intrigued you, offended your socks off. You’ve breathed sweet fragrant airs or shivered uncontrollably in climates not your own, you’ve worked for scowling bastards, you were given gratifying gifts that were wholly undeserved, you made decisions that a month prior you would have thought quite insane. You’ve lived. Write about it.
You don’t even have to write about it directly—have one of your short story characters say those nasty things you itched to tell your pestiferous second cousin. Run through your memories, and some branches will catch your clothes. Just as I wrote that, I thought about my 13-year-old self, roaming the Long Beach Pike, that long-gone, fascinatingly seedy beachfront boardwalk—and doorway-watching in goggle-eyed compulsion as a woman in a tattoo parlor had her breast inked. Not having made any direct acquaintance of female breasts at that point, let’s just say I was interested. That boy and his mesmerized look will end up in a story.
But it’s not just lurid chapters in your childhood that make for the best source material—it’s the trip you took to the tire dealership last month, where you noticed the grizzled old mechanic who clamped his jaw on an unlit cigar while he worked his tools. It’s noticing that the H.R. head at your office has an oddly aggressive way of pointing with her index finger while she talks. Your mind is populated, spilling over, with pictures of people and places and things you looked at, touched, were repelled by. Write about them. Using the life-stuff of your times as the font of your writing is as satisfyingly savory as any dog sandwich.