You know nothing.
You really know nothing. It’s not your fault. It’s the natural order of things. I must assume this if I am to practice what I preach.
I tell my students this. When teaching how to write an essay, the very first thing I tell them is that “the reader knows nothing.”
Obviously, this isn’t entirely true. I qualify that the reader can read English and ask questions. Also, that the reader is an American, so you don’t have to explain McDonalds, but you do need keep the reader happy.
What does this look like in practice? I happen to have two examples from papers I graded this week. Behold:
Cue the part where I then need to practice what I preach.
I am not one of those fiction writers with the impulse to describe the veins on the petal of a daylily. I rarely think about the color of my characters’ eyes. Only through a workshop lashing with John Bensko at the University of Memphis did I start to understand the importance of setting. In fact, the first story I had published was a direct result of his exasperated lecture in that workshop about how none of us seemed to understand that our story was taking place…in a place. This sounds ridiculous, I know. I’m still perplexed by how I can so easily neglect my setting.
Remember when I told you to remind me about my time in the circus?
From the ages of, say, 12 to 15 (1992-1995?), I performed with other dancers from American Academy of Dance in the Ronald McDonald Circus that came to Nashville every February. Four years performing in the circus were some of my most exciting childhood memories.
There are few settings with more sensory overload than that of the circus. All senses are standing on their toes with the smells of funnel cakes, the crunch of peanut shells under feet, the trumpets of elephants, and the heat of the various flaming things. At least, this is what I would guess. I haven’t been to a circus since I performed in it.
I suppose most average American readers have an idea of what the circus is like. So if I’m going to do my job and describe the setting of the circus, I need to go into those places that the reader doesn’t know. We dancers had complete access to the backstage world. We danced around the rings while the circus performers paraded inside of them. We sometimes rode the camels during the show and waved at the crowd. From a young age, I had children look at me from their circus seats with the same wonder with which they were looking at the lion tamer. It was thrilling. And a little terrifying.
The backstage world of the circus is what you don’t know. That the lions slept in the cages hooked together like a train. That these cages were pushed against the wall in the hall of the Municipal Auditorium, so when we had to go “backstage,” we had to walk by the cats who leered at us, sometimes growling and lunging.
That before we got onto the camel, we had to tiptoe around shit, because the camels were kept in the Auditorium’s basement and pooped where they stood.
That we had to make sure never to be alone with Grimace, the big purple McDonalds blob. Well, not the character, but the man inside the stinky costume. He may or may not have been a sex offender. For safety reasons, we had to assume he was.
That all the character costumes reeked of the multiple performers who sweat inside of them. That the costumes were never washed.
That the trapeze performers were just a Mexican family who screamed at each other minutes before flinging themselves through the air in colorful spandex, still catching each other by the wrists despite the ire.
And I loved it. I loved performing. I grew up as a performer: dancer, singer, theater, clown. Circus performer was just another gig. That being said, I have a hard time believing that what we young dancers did in the early nineties is even legal today. I’m sure there would be liability contracts and acceptable working hours instead of the bright-eyed, volunteer child labor that we were. But it was amazing! You have no idea how amazing!
Of course you don’t. You know nothing. But if I do my job, you will.