Side View of a Hand Writing With a Pen

Write What You Know

Neil Mathison

My essay “Ice” (NAR Winter 2012) testifies to the old writers' seminar saw “Write what you know.” The essay is about Puget Sound and the ice-age glaciers that formed Puget Sound, and since Puget Sound is where I grew up and where I still live, it’s a place I know better than any other. The essay is also about my Grandmother Catherine and her religious faith and her belief that Biblical miracles had natural explanations, or at the very least were attempts by those who witnessed them to explain what they saw. I knew my grandmother well, or at least as well as you can over a gulf of two generations, and I still admire her enlightened Methodism and her strong faith and how well it served her from her horse-and-carriage girlhood to her moon-shot maturity.  But the essay is also about what we don’t know and how we are driven to find answers to things, whether by religion or philosophy or our stories or our sciences, especially the greatest mystery of all: why things are the way they are. Natural science, especially geology, and what it tells us about our world and our place in it, is one of my go-to writing topics, although I’m neither a priest nor a philosopher nor a geologist and there’s much about the geology of Puget Sound and the physics of ice that I didn’t know until I began to write “Ice.” I owe much to John McPhee’s Annals of a Former World and much to Mountain Press’s Roadside Geology series and much to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum and much to Wikipedia. I remind myself that John McPhee was no geologist either and nobody has written more eloquently about geological science than he. What lesson should we writers take from this? Perhaps the old literary saw should be modified: “Write what you know as a way to write about what you want to know more.”

During the last eight months, Neil’s essay “Memory and Helix: What Comes to Us from the Past,” appeared in the anthology Man in the Moon: Essays on Father and Fatherhood, another, “My Redwoods,” appeared in California Prose Directory 2014: New Writing from the Golden State, and his short story, “The Cannery,” won the 2013 Fiction Attic Press Short Story Contest and appeared in the collection Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from the Fiction Attic Press. In addition, during this time, three more essays have been published: “Rafting off the Grid,” about a raft trip down the Grand Canyon, in Rappahannock Review, “Catastrophic Columbia,” about the dramatic geology of Washington State’s Columbia Plateau in Poplorish, and “Beaches,” about Washington State’s three ocean coasts in Eunoia Review. Neil’s short story “Waterslide” appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the Valparaiso Review.

The illustration above is done by Anthony Tremmaglia. He is an illustrator, artist, and educator based in Ottawa. Inspired by the complexities of the everyday human experience, Tremmaglia combines texture, drawing, and photographs in multi-layered works that underscore the paradox of our conflicting desires to both assimilate and break free. Tremmaglia was born in 1976 and graduated from the Advanced Illustration program at Toronto's Sheridan College.