Troubled Times and the Purpose of Writing

He was a rich kid who lived through his family’s loss of wealth. Later he’d write poetry that in the 1920s won him three Pulitzers.

Yes, poetry that has haunted me for decades.

E.A. Robinson was his name, and his family were Maine lumber barons until the Panic of 1893 crashed the American economy.

His poem, “Cassandra,” used Greek mythology—the wise prophet whom no one heeded—as a call to America, his America of the 19th century:

Because a few complacent years
Have made your peril of your pride,
Think you that you are to go on
Forever pampered and untried?

Robinson’s poem troubled me. I was a high schooler, after all, and a dentist’s daughter. My great challenge in life had been a move from San Jose, California to a small town in Michigan. I had been pampered—very. Our family had a tennis court and I had my horse. I was untried.

But Robinson knew better. He had lived through the shock waves of a decimated lifestyle. He then watched his brother, a medical doctor and family star, abuse drugs and spiral to ruin, before his second brother followed suit.

From such experiences he carved the haunting lines for “Cassandra” and his better known, “Richard Cory.” Why? Because Robinson lived the life of a schope.

The schope, explains writer Walter Wangerin, crossed battlefields in ancient Greece to record who lived, who died, who won, who lost. That was the job: naming what was. And that’s the task Robinson labored over, his commitment stalwart and beautiful. He grappled with his family’s ruin and made a valuable commodity, meaning.

When I confront today’s bewildering turmoil, I repeat the lines from this poet who knew, “Think you that you are to go on/Forever pampered and untried?” and watch and study the turmoil and then return to my work—my writing—to do what I must…meaning make.

Guest novelist Cathy Parker: Yes, writing what you know is exciting!

Write what you know—any craft article or book will so advise you. You read this advice and you think: What I know could put a cowboy to sleep during a steer riding contest.

I beg to differ.

Write Yourself. Today let’s limit ourselves to what you know best: yourself. The trick is to write “you,” as the character, and then supercharge what you know: tweak and twist “yourself,” drop “yourself” into unexpected places and crises for unexpected reasons.

You are the undercoat, and the undercoat consists of your experiences, occupation(s), and personality traits (cerebral, social, loner, mixer, one friend or one hundred, quick temper, calm as the sea at slack tide, voluble, silent, energetic or laid back?). Paint your characters with these traits. Create a “why” for such traits, or create your exact opposite. Or imagine taking such traits to the extreme—the uses are endless.

Pay attention to your idioms. Your pattern of speech. The way you interact with people. What, when and how you eat. Sleep patterns. Your relationship with animals. And on and on it goes. How could you create with what you see in yourself?

Details count in creating characters. Look yourself over. Notice what’s there. Find a way to use it. Your hair for example: what if something interesting happens because of a character’s hair? Maybe your protagonist falls down a crazy rabbit hole because he answers an ad for a clinic treating baldness. Maybe your character’s fortunes change the day she gives up trying for the long hair she’ll never have, and gets a short dynamite cut.

Know, and then imagine. This is only the beginning. You still have your experiences from childhood through school and all the big and little jobs you’ve held or wanted but didn’t get, stayed at or left. Friends. Vacations. Family. All stepping off points for the imagination.

            What you know will give your work truth.

            What you imagine will give your work wings.

            Come on now, go out and write what you now know!

Cathy Parker is a former journalist and attorney. She can be contacted through her website, AuthorCathyParker.com. Her book Power of Three is available on-line, and the sequel, Power Multiplied is available for preorder. Subscribers to Cathy’s newsletter who send digital proof of preordering will be receiving three stories surrounding her Power Rising Trilogy.

Picture by Ashim D’Silva, unsplash.com