Know something about something. Don’t just present your wonderful self to the world. Constantly amass knowledge and offer it around.
This remark, by the late Richard Holbrooke, eminent diplomat for the US government until his death last year, resonates with me. I wrote it down in a notebook and I think there’s a truth to it.
I don’t think it’s an easy truth. The older I get, the less certain I am about most things [note to self, read Montaigne, the book is by your bed; it’s the one with dust on it next to the Robert B Parker]. I find myself asking constantly, how do they know? and thinking that’s just the evidence we have now about everything from children to earthquakes via global warming/economic collapse and disease.
Worst of all, I frequently find myself spouting off about things on the basis of half hearing the news on the radio while slopping baked beans into children. Later, I find this counts for a degree in world affairs. Shut up I hiss to myself. You know nothing about the socio-religious structure of the Syrian officer cadre and why it makes revolution in Damascus less likely.
Trouble is, even I don’t want to discuss my areas of expertise at length. The topographical imperatives of changing the duvet cover: why you must find the corners first or I’llbloodywelldoitmyself? Heart versus Radio 4 on the school run: when enough Adele is enough and you have to pull rank but it’s not fascism? The importance of repetition in family ritual: no you can’t watch telly/play on the computer: a naga saga?
None of this presents itself as interesting material for a novel. NOT EVEN TO ME AND IT’S MY LIFE.
I don’t want to write about what I know. I find it dull. (And yes, I do know, that someone somewhere is writing a bestseller on precisely this territory in a way that makes it breathtakingly powerful; this is constantly happening with ideas that I have rejected and I don’t know what to do about it.)
I do have an idea that’s tugging at my sleeve right now. The setting is a world away from mine and the research hurdle seems intimidatingly high. You know where this is going, don’t you? Yes, I’m stuck with having to know something about something. That Richard Holbrooke, he knew a thing or two about something.