I like writing. I like the process of writing. It makes my brain feel good. But sometimes I get discouraged about writing, especially descriptions, because I feel like I never know what the hell I’m talking about.
I read really great pieces by authors who describe everything in so. much. detail. They talk about the subtle shades of juniper berries and the composition of concrete sidewalks. They describe the veins in beech tree leaves and the faint crows feet around their mothers’ eyes. They write raw and real things about blood and sex and history. But they’re making it all up.
I realized it the other day as I walked down 14th Avenue. I was thinking about how I would write about my walk, and the more I composed the story in my head, the more frustrated I became. What gives me the right to express my opinion about the beauty of the trees I pass by when I have absolutely no clue what kind of trees they are? I just know they are blooming yellow right now and they smell good and I’m probably going to take a picture on my phone and upload it to Facebook and ask people what kind of tree it is. And then, when I find out, do I pretend I knew it all along? Who wants to hear what I have to say about a tree when I obviously just Googled, “colorado tree with yellow blooms that smell good.” (FYI, that search results in nothing. I still have no idea what this tree is called.) If my life depended on being able to identify a beech tree or a juniper berry, I would be dead. Probably because I think juniper berries are poisonous, but there’s another one I’d have to Google.
But it doesn’t matter. I mean, unless you are Wendell Berry or Annie Dillard, you probably don’t actually know how to both identify and write eloquently about the plants you are encountering any more than I do. And that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me that we don’t know things. It bothers me that we write like we do know things. I want the things I write to be honest, even if they aren’t beautiful.
This afternoon, I put my iPod on shuffle for the drive home. I heard two songs with lyrics I wish I wrote. The first was “Eagle on a Pole” by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. The opening lyrics go:
I saw an eagle on a pole
I think it was an eagle
Now that eagle has flown
And I’ll never know.
Could have been a rotten apple
Full of holes
Could have been an open wine bottle
Ready to go
Or it could have been an eagle on a pole
He wrote an entire song, title included, about something he thinks he saw. And the song is damn good. It’s not about the eagle , it’s about the meaning behind the eagle. In fact, if it had been firmly established that the eagle was on the pole, there would be no questions and therefore, no song. So thank goodness the Mystic Valley Band doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
The other song was “Your Song” by Elton John. This song used to really irritate me. Elton says he wrote the music for it in ten minutes, and I’m guessing Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics in about ten seconds, because they include gems like these lines:
I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
Well, a few of the verses, well,
They’ve got me quite cross
Yeah, me and you both, Bernie. Oh, and then there’s these lyrics:
So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do
You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue
Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean
Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen
“Your Song” used to piss me off because I thought that if you were going to make millions off of a song, you should at least know the eye color of the person whose song is “Your Song.” It all felt a little half-assed. But that was back when I still bought into the lie that writers know what they are talking about. The best writers, the brave ones like Bernie, are those who can admit that they don’t know what is true, yet still tell a beautiful story.
I lie all the time. Probably most of the things I write are false in varying degrees. I change names. I make up dialogue. I smooth out connections and relationships and backstories because the truth is too complicated. I invent scenes to give my stories the poignant endings I think they need. I completely write people out of the story. One of the only things I took away from a creative nonfiction class I took once was when the professor said, “It doesn’t have to be true, but it has to be honest.” I’m just trying to be honest.