Barrels

My Uncle Grattan, my father’s oldest brother, was a brilliant man. He spent a couple of years in New York City in his twenties studying art before he returned to his native South Carolina. He then lived out the remainder of his life on the coast at Murrell’s Inlet, and for many of those years managed the small zoo at Brookgreen Gardens. He continued to paint there and was also a public speaker who seemed to know just about everyone along the coast, Mickey Spillane, the famous detective writer, wealthy winter residents, restaurant and business owners who hung his paintings on their walls. He was also, my father said, a Rosicrucian, a member of that secret mystical society dating to the Middle Ages. Too bad he died before author Dan Brown came along.

My father said my uncle told him that he and other members of his particular Rosicrucian order had reached such a high level of consciousness that they conducted their meetings by telepathy. Yes, this sounds a bit loony, which might seem appropriate for a zookeeper. But I knew him growing up, and he seemed a perfectly sane man, tall and thin with distinguished white hair, a delightful wit and an enchanting repertory of tall tales and stories.

He was also apparently a popular speaker at local civic events and organizations along the coast, although he told my father that he never prepared a speech in advance. “The mind is like a barrel,” he said. “If you fill it up, anywhere you poke a hole, something’s going to come out.”

When I discuss the craft of fiction with writers, I often share this quote, because this metaphorical barrel is a writer’s most precious resource. Each of us brings to our work a unique repository that’s chock-full of the many experiences of our lives, the good and bad, happy and tragic, as well as the knowledge we’ve gained from these experiences and from our education, reading, research and the people we’ve known.

We can be our own best creative resource if we let ourselves poke around in this amazing memory bank. Even better, as my Uncle Grattan understood, this is one resource that goes with us wherever we go.