Guest Post, Kathryn Kulpa: More Than You Think You Know

“You are better than you think. A-one, a-two, a-three.” 

—Kurt Vonnegut

Remember that old chestnut of writing advice that gets lobbed at all of us—particularly young writers, particularly new writers—write what you know? I ran across it first in my teens. Rather a dispiriting command for those of us whose real lives, the lives we knew, consisted of going to boring school every day in our boring town, and maybe, if we were lucky, going to the mall. My own trips to the mall invariably ended at the bookstore, where I sought escape in reading about other lives, other worlds that were nothing like the world I knew. 

Not necessarily better worlds. I favored dystopias and disasters, perilous quests and amorphous monsters, the merest glimpse of which could blast your sanity and leave you a gibbering mindless hulk, not unlike how I felt at the end of double biology class. 

My heart is in Middle Earth
My heart is not here
My heart is in Middle Earth
Trembling with fear …

I wrote in first-period algebra, when I compared Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring to the search for the square root of a quadratic equation, and the search for the equation didn’t come off too well. (Nor did my math grades, but that’s another story.) 

I read, and re-read, Tolkien and Lovecraft and Poe and Stephen King. My high school library had volumes of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, going back to at least 1970. I studied them like scripture. But my own attempts to write in those genres always felt like flat imitation. At the same time, I obsessively chronicled the ordinary details of my own life in notebooks: who wore the yellow dress that made her look like “a squeezed-out lemon,” who wrote “I LOVE KENNY” on the desk I shared in third period English, prompting me to question: “Does he love you?”; which teacher made the whole class stay after school because a few kids were acting up, spurring me to add a new dictionary definition under the word “shit.” Impromptu songs and poems and comics, but I didn’t consider any of it “real” writing, just throwaway stuff. 

Only I didn’t throw it away. A quiet voice inside told me not to. I would learn to listen to that voice. 

What I remember from my first “real” writing workshop were the yellow sheets the instructor gave us with comments on our stories, comments so detailed it felt as if each story had already been published and was worthy of critical attention. I only remember one piece of general writing advice, but it stuck in my mind as a corollary to write what you know: “You know more than you think you know.” 

I can’t explain the sense of freedom and relief that advice gave me. How many times I’d discarded story ideas, telling myself I couldn’t write about X because I’d never been to Y and didn’t know enough about Z. 

If a story idea feels right, if it feels emotionally true, then write it. Researching the details can come later. In that workshop I wrote a first draft of my story “The Night Copernicus Died,” about a nuclear scientist haunted by regret. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nuclear physicist. My only “research” for the story was a book I’d once read about the making of the atomic bomb and a manga written by a survivor of Hiroshima. 

But I’d been born into a world shadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation. I’d never known a time when that shadow didn’t haunt my dreams. As a teen and young adult, I’d wake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, sure the world was going to end that night. I’d lie awake, making lists of all the things that made the world worth saving, fireflies and forsythia and golden retriever puppies, even though the people in it were so stupid. 

Years later, I met someone who’d been in the army during the Reagan years. “You don’t know how close we got, a couple of times,” he told me. But on some level I did know. And that feeling—that inner knowledge—was what drove the story. 

It was published in a science fiction magazine. I worried that, because its readers probably included a higher-than-average proportion of MIT grads, someone would question the science. 

No one said a word about the science. But I was forwarded a letter by one reader who wanted me to know that, while I had described the 1950s as a time when “gas was five cents a gallon,” it was, in fact, closer to 25 cents per gallon for much of that decade. 

Duly noted. 

In a more recent story, “Skater Girl at Rest,” I wrote in the voice of a former teen-movie star now sentenced to home confinement: 

Anna had always imagined an ankle bracelet would look like an actual bracelet, like the cylindrical copper coil she’d bought one year at Burning Man.

But it didn’t. It was bulky and oddly medical, with a thick black attachment that reminded Anna of a garage door opener or an old-school drug dealer beeper. It chafed her ankle and banged against her other leg when she slept and made wardrobe choices so much harder than they had to be. 

That voice just came to me, like taking dictation from a friendly ghost, yet having written it I started to worry that I’d got ankle bracelets all wrong; maybe they were discreet and delicate little bands, and what did I know about ankle bracelets anyway? 

I consulted the Google (The Google is your friend! Just not in the first draft) and found that they were, in fact pretty much exactly as I’d described them. 

You know more than you think you know. 

But what could I know about being dead? I would never claim that I know what it’s like to be dead, unless I happened to be singing a song written by John Lennon, but a while ago I became possessed by the need to write a story from the point of view of a dead person. Not a ghost, or an angel, or a spirit trapped in some interdimensional bardo. Just a regular dead person, who was dead but in some way still there, still a part of the physical world. 

I had been doing some strange reading, as I’m apt to do, about body farms and unusual disposition of human remains, and some of it was fascinating and some of it was horrifying, and the question I kept asking myself was why? Why would someone choose to have their body thrown down an elevator shaft, strapped into a crashing car, torn to pieces by animals, or left to rot in an open field? 

The voice of my narrator, a calm and reasonable voice, started speaking to me. She started telling me her story. And so I had to listen. 

They say we’ll get our bodies back whole after the rapture, but I’m pretty much done with mine—like when you’ve got an old nightgown so worn and full of holes that you’re just as happy when it rips, so you can tear it up for rags. 

The story, “A Key Into the Language of the Dead,” was published in Superstition Review‘s Issue 23. The characters and what they talk about and think about are made up. What happens to the bodies is real. 

What happens to the pumpkin is also real. It grew in my front yard. 

So yes, write what you know. That can be good advice, but don’t let it limit you to a narrow definition of what you think you know. You’ve seen things you didn’t realize you saw. You’ve heard things you don’t remember you heard. You know more than you think you know. Trust what you know. Tell the stories that beckon you, the ones that trouble you, even if they seem difficult or strange. 

And always Google the gas prices.

Guest Blog Post, Kathryn Kulpa: A Multiplicity of Charlies

Kathryn KulpaIt started with Charlie Brown. Or maybe it started before that, as a way to avoid getting beaten up.

I was a misfit sort of kid, with exactly the combination of academic precociousness and social naivete that guaranteed no seat ever at the popular kids’ table, and there was a point in first grade when I got beaten up by a gang of third-graders every day at recess.

“Every day” may be an exaggeration. There were the days I was able to beg off school, claiming a stomachache, and the days I successfully hid in a bathroom stall or the janitor’s closet or made it out early and ducked into the woods. But pretty much, my routine was the same: run, get cornered, get kicked to the curb.

Did I deserve it? Possibly. What I remember most vividly from first grade, besides the recess torment, was my discovery of boredom. I remember sitting in a metal-legged chair, listening to the teacher drone on about sets and subsets and feeling overcome with a horror of the void: Do I actually have to sit here and do this? Every day? For the next twelve years?

It didn’t help that I’d come from a private kindergarten that had covered pretty much the same ground my first-grade teacher was now trying to impart to a much larger class. I had no desire to become hooked on phonics, saw no point in “reading readiness” drills. I knew how to read, and I did so constantly, hungrily, near obsessively. I was the insufferable know-it-all who stood up at my kindergarten graduation to explain the difference between alligators and crocodiles. But I just couldn’t get excited about seeing Spot run, particularly when he’d done the same exact running in last year’s textbook and still hadn’t gotten anywhere.

So I found ways to amuse myself, many of which resulted in trips to the principal’s office. Today, I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD and given whatever brain-altering chemicals were likely to make me sit still longest. But it was a more innocent time, and kids diagnosed as “hyperactive,” when they were diagnosed, were simply told to lay off the red M & Ms.

I spent a lot of time in my principal’s office that year. I didn’t mind. He wasn’t a bad guy, as I recall, and we must have had some interesting conversations, or negotiations, because a friend’s mother liked to tell the story of how she saw me alone on the swing set after the recess bell had rung, and when she asked why I wasn’t back in class, I explained that the principal had given me a two-minute exception.

But if the principal gave me an exception, those third-graders didn’t. I’d discovered that one of the cures for boredom was to balance your chair on its back legs and rock it back and forth, hitting the desk behind you. While this may have passed the time for me, it annoyed the hell out of the girl behind me. “Quit it!” she hissed, and when I didn’t quit it, she pushed her desk forward, wedging me in. We waged a quiet little war for a few days, her pushing forward, me leaning back, and then she called in the big guns: her third-grade sister and her two friends.

Somehow, I survived the third-grade death squad. I even survived first grade. I found a cure for boredom that was better than rocking or humming or mutilating erasers. I started sneaking books into school, hiding books I actually wanted to read behind the tame covers of textbooks. That had its own risks—being called on among them—but it gave me the framework for a dream-world I could escape to when the real world was too much for me, or too little.  Reading led to writing, mostly stories that could be generously called homage, or, less generously, blatant imitation. I’d already been making up stories in my head for a long time, but when I told those stories—about my pet dinosaur or my invisible baby brother—I was called a liar, not a writer. Putting the lies on paper made them real. It made them better than real: it made them last.

And, for the most part, it kept me out of the principal’s office and off the third-grade hit list.

My own third-grade teacher (thank you, Miss Eagan) was the first person who made me think my writing could be something more than a solitary vice. She was an old-school teacher, with iron-gray hair and a border collie’s eye for misbehavior, not one for easy As, so when she singled out my stories and asked me to read them out loud in front of our class and the younger grades, I knew it was an honor, although a slightly terrifying one. It was like being given permission to lie, as long as the lies were interesting.

Still, none of this felt like it had any connection to my future until one night at the mall. I was probably ten or eleven, and my mom was taking me to my favorite place, the bookstore. As we walked in, I saw a multiplicity of Charlie Browns. It was a Peanuts anniversary edition, stacked up on display, Charlie after Charlie. Now, some of the first books I remember buying with my own allowance were Peanuts paperbacks; I collected every one I could find, even the really early ones where Snoopy didn’t talk and all the kids had gigantic heads, so it wouldn’t be surprising that I’d be interested, or nostalgic, but what I felt was something more powerful: an unfamiliar but completely certain identification with Charles Schulz as a writer. It was as if, for the first time, I’d put it all together. Books didn’t just magically exist. They came from writers, who were real people, who did exactly what I did, and that meant that I could be a writer. Not just a freak or a geek or, in the words of a teacher less encouraging than Miss Eagan, “Waaaay up there in the clouds.” I could be—I was—a writer.

“Someday my books will be up there,” I told my mother.

I didn’t feel like bragging, and I wasn’t lusting after fame. It felt like being lost for a long time, and suddenly seeing a familiar landmark and realizing that you do, after all, know the way home.

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