“But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights.” –Annie Dillard
It starts with reading. May I suggest textbooks. Or field guides. Your mother’s old shopping lists. Ancient political analysis. Or found notes1. The Internet is fine, but I find that the succinct voice found in a book lends itself to more found lyricism and it keeps you from falling down the hyperlink rabbit hole. Though sometimes the rabbit hole is just what you need. Proceed at your own risk – unlike glass cats you can’t always just toss out facts, they get stuck 2. Of course, feel free to find facts elsewhere: nature, science labs, the surface of the moon, your daughter’s hands, the ache of a cold settling in your chest.
I see facts as trinkets, things to collect, show off, and easily broken. On learning the way ionic compounds worked in high school I was giddy as an 85-year-old woman who found the perfect glass cat for her immaculately dusted collection. I tucked it in with the facts I’ve been gathering since I started reading my dad’s collection of books on war. And the encyclopedias I would smuggle into my room as a 7-year-old to learn more about Progeria and genomes. But I must admit, I do not keep my collection neat and tidy. I toss the trinkets in with the rest and hope when I catch a glimpse of a broken piece when I open the Curio Cabinet in my mind it will trigger a landslide of memory, emotion, words. This is why I never re-present the facts as fact, but something that is mine. A fact comes out at dinner as a story about how my grandfather showed me how to identify an animal skull 3 or in a poem that makes a mathematical proof contain the remnants of a long-gone relationship. The facts are there: broken, jumbled, askew.
Now, hold tight to your fact. Put it somewhere. Pocket, neuron, palm of your hand 4. Who cares where, just store it. It’s yours to play with now. Unlike with a glass cat, your brain knows what to do with it. It starts connecting one fact to others and if you sit long enough with the fact and let it move about it will end up looking like the red stringed room in “A Beautiful Mind” and you can follow the yarn to the next fact.
For a few years I have had a quote written on a blue index card leaning on the shelf above my desk. It reads: “Tell the fact but tell it slant.” It is attributed to Emily Dickinson. But that isn’t what she wrote 5. I don’t know if I made this my own as I wrote it or if I subconsciously substituted fact for Dickinson’s Truth in an effort to avoid that ever-enduring conversation I dodge 6. And will dodge even now. What matters about this quote is that it’s led me to many poems and essays. What matters is that I see this played out in every good book I’ve ever read. Facts become our own and as writers, we collect them so we can use them to create works of art.
So, you’ve got a fact. Here’s where it gets tricky. Once you’ve collected your fact, you need to be knocked off-balance, or knock the fact off-balance. Tilt your head when you read, get your brain off-kilter, cross your eyes, drink something strong. Squint if need be. Or peer through one of those glass cats at it. In other words, look indirectly at the sun so you don’t blind yourself 7. If you look directly at fact and report it as is, you’ve merely photocopied someone else’s work – it’s just a faded version of the original.
I like to think of this stage like blurring your eyes at wood grain until you see a face or a word. The wood grain is there for everyone to see, but then you see it, shift your perspective, and it becomes something wholly your own. You have created something, what now?
Get it down. Work it onto the page. Make it a fact that someone else can find, break up, make her own. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote: “I love the little facts, the ten percents, the fact of the real and legged borers, the cuticle-covered, secretive grubs, the blister beetles, blood flukes and mites. But there are plenty of ways to pile the facts…”8 Maybe insects aren’t your thing, that’s okay. Find your facts and then find your way to pile the facts, word after word. Pile them so high that it starts to tilt, tip, then avalanche into the ever thickening, brilliantly connected pile.
(1) Preferably from a frozen man’s bag in Antarctica that you found while on a journey.
(2) Avoid cute videos of rabbits. Or don’t.
(3) A coyote skull is long and narrow with long canine teeth. Remember this, it will come in handy some day when you remember it incorrectly and try to write it as a footnote.
(4) Ink works well for storing things on your palm. Ignore the Surgeon General’s warning against such things.
(5) Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—”
(6) You know the one. Truth v. truth, Fiction v. Nonfiction. The one that makes me play mute.
(7) More great advice from the aforementioned Dickinson poem (interpreted, by me, at a slant).
(8) Even this ellipsis implies I’ve taken something, squinted at it, made it my own. I’ve left something out and made this fact something that is the product of my mind.