The above is William Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak. While I was in college at Ole Miss, I worked as a curator in Faulkner’s home.

I often write about the fact that before I moved to the southern part of New Jersey, I had lived 53 years in the South. One might say that I used to be a Southerner, but that is not actually the case. I am still a Southerner. I am simply a Southerner who is living in the North.

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Before I began writing [about 10 months ago], I expressed myself as a painter. Since October 1, 2015 [when I began to write], I have not painted another thing. One might also say that I used to be a painter, but that is not true either. I still see the world visually, and I am still a painter. On the best of my writing days, I paint pictures with words, and I believe that my years as a visual artist help me to do that.

When I write descriptively, I literally close my eyes and see something inside my mind, and while my eyes are still closed, I type the words that describe what I see in my head. I recently encountered a challenge to capture 10 seconds of time in words, but the difficulty of the challenge was that the piece of writing had to be at least a page in length or about 400 words. While the piece could be longer than that, it could not be much shorter. No thinking or thoughts could be expressed in the writing about a period of 10 seconds. The piece was to be limited only to what was actually happening. No judgments were allowed. I wrote the following:

The Lamp in the Foyer

A spindly and too-thin five-year-old tiptoed across the floor, and the wide, wooden planks creaked and groaned. As Dood walked, she released the smell of old and oily wood from the floorboards. The little girl had spied Grandma’s glass lamp across the foyer, and she had headed toward it. Dood loved to trace her fingers around the red roses that were painted on each of the lamp’s orbs, and that was how the moment began.

Even though it was mid-day and the lamp was not lit, the scent of kerosene and charred wick was still heavy from the night before. A fringe of  diamond-like pendants hung from around the lamp’s upper globe. Dood reached outward and pulled one of the crystals back and let it go, and the dangling shards bounced into each other. One after another, the pieces of glass clinked and jingled. The mirror, that was behind the rosy lamp, caught the rippling reflection and flung it back into the room. Like fireflies, the light flickered from wall to wall.

A stained glass window was mounted in the heavy oak frame that was perched at the top of the front door. A wave of bright sunlight streamed through the multi-colored panels and at the same time, a gust of wind blew through the hallway, causing the colorful light from the stained glass window to skip across the floor and into the mirror. A kaleidoscope of color bounced across the crystal fringe, and like a circus carousel,the pendants of glass rattled and danced more wildly. Tiny, little rainbows rollicked around and around and around.

©Jacki Kellum August 5, 2016

Most people would probably agree that when we write about what we know, we ae able to write more vividly. I believe that much of this is linked to the fact that when we are in the Writing Zone, our intuitions take over and begin to write for us. In order for this to happen, we must have a reservoir of images within ourselves, and when the intuition begins to describe, it  dives deep within and paints pictures of what it sees inside.

Although the above passage is ostensibly about my mother when she was a child and living in her grandmother’s home, it is actually a description of my own memories. I don’t have a copy of my mother’s memories within myself, and my intuition cannot depict what my mother saw and heard. My intuition was not around when my mother was a child. The glass lamp that I described was my mother’s lamp, and as a little girl, I loved to trace my fingers around the roses that were painted on the orbs.

I believe that it is not uncommon for people to describe their own experiences within their writings of historical fiction or biography. When a person strives to write about someone else’s past, it becomes historical fiction to one extent or another. We can never fully know the experiences of another person.

James Fennimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans and several other books that were set in the area around his home in upstate New York. In one of the books, he wrote about how the Native Americans would canoe to a big boulder to meet. This big boulder is Council Rock, which is an actual rock that is very near Cooper’s childhood home. The description of the rock in Cooper’s writing of historical fiction is beautiful and when we know that Cooper had first-hand experiences with the rock, we have little doubt that in writing what is supposedly fiction, Cooper was describing from his own memories.

For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known…
I am a part of all that I have met…Alred Lord Tennyson – Ulysses
Allow me to return to my opening paragraph. For 53 years, I lived and loved in the South and because “I am a part of all that I have met,” I am still a Southerner. But now, I am also a person from the Shore of South Jersey. I am both the South and the North and the cotton patches where I grew up, too. Likewise, because I have actually painted for many years, I am still a painter, but now, I am not only a visual artist, I am also a painter of words.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I cannot refrain from saying again and again, that our most penetrating and our most exquisite writing lies within our own pasts. In examining our pasts, we reclaim our authentic voices. Too often painters go to Italy and paint the orange homes that hang from the cliffs there or they go to the Alps or to Paris to paint. When we paint best, however, we paint what we live daily; and the same thing is true in writing. We need to write what you know. But the first part of that equation is to know the person who writes.
©Jacki Kellum August 7, 2016