“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
— Mark Twain
Mark Twain gave us lots of great quotes and in this one we can take some lessons for our writing:
I've never been a great risk taker in life and this is also true of my writing - I'm being honest here. I stick to genres that I am comfortable with and tend to write about stuff I know; and according to some writers, that's a fatal mistake. Take author Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) who famously said: “What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, 'Write what you know.' It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given."
Annie goes on to say that if we just write about what we know, we don't grow - and there's truth to that. If we keep rolling down the same well-worn track, and we don't digress onto another pathway that looks bright and interesting, or dark yet irresistibly intriguing, we can become tunnel-visioned.
I'm all for writing about what you know but within that, take your risks, don't get too comfortable, let the wind fill your sails and rather than pull in the ropes, let them out to allow full flight so you are on that pathway to discovery and imagining. Take what you know and apply it to a new genre: I can take the first fabulous flush of true love I experienced at 16 (well, at least I thought it was true) and translate that into romance fiction; I can take my life with my cat and create a child's picture book; the facts I have about my Mom growing up in Florida during the war I can apply to a local history of that time and place.
The main message here is to take chances, enjoy your writing, let it take you to places you never thought you would go - and don't be afraid. Fear is one of the greatest roadblocks to our writing: it manifests as self doubt (I can't possibly do this, I'm not good enough), what-will-people-think-of-me (people will hate my work), and who could possibly be interested in anything I have to say?
I say, 'who cares?' Write what you want, take risks, and never stop learning. Every time you write, you learn - about yourself, and your craft.
Go on. Explore. Dream. Discover.
When I think about life writing, I sometimes wonder what my old cat Betsy would write about. She's had quite the adventurous life.
I first met her at the pet shop up the road. She was in a large enclosure with several other tabby kittens and I was in the market for a new feline companion.
Her cage mates were dozing and lethargic. She was jumping around, playing with things, looking very lively. I thought, "I'll have her."
The first evening at my place she disappeared. I was beside myself, thinking she must have gotten out and was lost in the bush - but how could she escape? Doors and windows within reach were closed, she was so tiny, there was no way she could get out. I searched and called, all the while knowing that this kitten wouldn't yet know it's name and was probably terrified of me anyway.
I sat down in despair to watch Shortland Street and heard a high pitched wail from the laundry room. Little Miss Betsy had managed to get up under the washing machine, no mean feat, and was under there crying with a desperation that broke my heart. I managed to get her out, and we began working on our relationship.
Her life story might begin this way: "Some lady took me from my brothers and sisters, put me in a cage, let me out into a huge place I didn't know that smelled funky. I sought the only safety I could, under this large white appliance. I squeezed under it and there I stayed, trembling and cold."
Our relationship was always twitchy. Betsy was highly strung. Some days she was an angel, but on others she would hiss, spit, claw and hated visitors. No wonder. Maybe it was due to the washing machine. An early memory of trauma. There were days when I wished I'd picked one of those lethargic kittens instead of this lively, somewhat neurotic gal but I loved her and we both hung in there.
Betsy could also show absolute and unshakable devotion. I have often written about her constant presence when I was having chemotherapy for breast cancer, with me night and day, bringing me the sustenance of large leaves from the puka tree, only leaving my side to attend to business outside and to eat.
She's a clever cat, intuitive, quick, street-smart, savvy.
Betsy's life timeline would probably show a period of prolonged difficulty when I adopted a stray male cat, Little Boy. He took over the household and Betsy took to the bush and to the roof. I rarely saw her except at feeding times. What would she say about this? "Jane took in a stray. He was a serial abuser. I learned to survive."
Little Boy died over a year ago and Betsy has come into her own again. She's almost 18 years old now and still looking very good, sleek-furred, bright eyed (she would say, "I always kept myself up well.") and very companionable.
We sit in the evening and watch Shortland Street together. She can't fit under the washing machine any more, nor would she want to. I do everything I can, and then some, to make her happy and comfortable, because she's earned it, by golly, and, quite frankly, I adore her.
We've been together for longer than any relationship I've ever had in my life.
What would she write now, I wonder. "Life is OK. I lie in the sun. I have soft pillows to sleep on at night and I get good food. I watch clouds, birds, grass growing. I haven't the energy to bite and scratch. I am content."
What more could a cat need?