Writing Rules: Obsessions and the Unknown

Save a few childhood stories, which have returned to me in recent months as my mom unearths the papery relics of my childhood and bundles report cards, newspaper clippings, poems and sends them from Michigan to Montana, I’ve been musing, writing, cursing, editing, crying, laughing, deleting, rewriting about one very specific place, Marquette Island. I’m beginning to think it’s a furious obsession.

In college creative writing classes, one of the many rules of workshop was “write what you know”. This piece of advice, however, was not delivered to my third and six grade classrooms where I imagined characters of different races and different cultures and had them step through a story, one page at a time. I didn’t know much about the business of television shows or life as a recent immigrant from Africa, other than what I gleaned from pop culture, as much as can possibly be learned when you wear braces and have an early bedtime. Point is, I didn’t know anything about the lives of my early characters and I hadn’t been told that I was supposed to know about what I wrote. What I did know was how to clack out stories on an old word processor and tackle blank pages with a battalion of markers and crayons.

Clearly, younger Maggie kicked that writing rule overboard.

As a child, I didn’t know certain topics were taboo or that there were cultural and ethnic sensitivities to consider when conjuring up worlds in Harlem ghettos or killing off an (ahem, my) entire family in a fiery airplane crash to star in a hit ‘90s sitcom. What kid knows these rules, some spoken, some not? And luckily for me, my parents didn’t squash my imaginative ruminations, didn’t tell me what I could or couldn’t write. I’m sure they thought the whole writing business was a phase similar to my “old fashioned” phase when I wore a bonnet and retrieved water from a spigot. It’s not like “Jesse Goes to Hollywood” or “Witnessing It All”, written and illustrated by yours truly will ever reach a greater audience than my parents, teachers and a few classmates. However I will say this: those two stories I wrote in elementary school are the only two that actually have a discernible plot. That’s kind of depressing…

Since my early explorations into sitcoms and gang life, my focus has been narrow: I’ve written about what I know. Marquette Island and my family’s allegiance to it. Sure, Montana pops up every now and again, but for over thirteen years, the discernable thread between stories, real or made up, has been a specific landscape. I’ve gnawed on themes about family and place. I’ve clung to these notions about writing rules, writing exactly what I know but still the work falls short.

Self-doubt tends to settle in when I miss my mark and I wonder if my obsession has led me astray from my imagination. But if I knew exactly what I was writing about, don’t you think I’d be over this whole island thing like a fleeting crush? That’s what I have to tell myself, to reel my wandering and unforgiving mind when it wants to abandon ship and take quarter with the ballerinas and rappers.

If, after all this time, I was writing exactly and precisely what I know, than what would there be to tell? Would I be as possessed as I am now?

Perhaps I’ll never again compose a story about a young girl’s dream to star on television or what it’s like to witness a murder in some darkened alley in New York.  Those preoccupations had a short expiration date. My compulsion leads me back home, scrolling over maps of the Les Cheneaux Islands and pestering my mom and grandmother for details on how old the Whaler is and who cut the beams for the cabin. Books of the Great Lakes consume the shoreline of my desk and yellow sticky notes tattoo the stacks of papers and bills, serving as reminders and placeholders for those scraps of memory I’ve retrieved from the depths of my memory and also, yes, imagination.  I am writing about what I know, about a place and a family, but I’m learning, day by day, that there is so very much I don’t know. The unknown is slightly terrifying.

Writing what I know has led me, often kicking and screaming, other times deliriously, into what I don’t know.

I think the author of seminal works like “Jesse Goes to Hollywood” would approve. What did she know about “Full House” and Steven Spielberg and adoption issues before she gathered her notebooks and markers? Not much.

But, she wrote the story.

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