Essays Fiction 2011

Don’t Write What You Know

Why fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity will always transcend the literal truth

Every Wednesday, I teach an introductory fiction workshop at Harvard University, and on the first day of class I pass out a bullet-pointed list of things the students should try hard to avoid. Don’t start a story with an alarm clock going off. Don’t end a story with the whole shebang having been a suicide note. Don’t use flashy dialogue tags like intoned or queried or, God forbid, ejaculated. Twelve unbearably gifted students are sitting around the table, and they appreciate having such perimeters established. With each variable the list isolates, their imaginations soar higher. They smile and nod. The mood in the room is congenial, almost festive with learning. I feel like a very effective teacher; I can practically hear my course-evaluation scores hitting the roof. Then, when the students reach the last point on the list, the mood shifts. Some of them squint at the words as if their vision has gone blurry; others ask their neighbors for clarification. The neighbor will shake her head, looking pale and dejected, as if the last point confirms that she should have opted for that aseptic-surgery class where you operate on a fetal pig. The last point is: Don’t Write What You Know.

The idea panics them for two reasons. First, like all writers, the students have been encouraged, explicitly or implicitly, for as long as they can remember, to write what they know, so the prospect of abandoning that approach now is disorienting. Second, they know an awful lot. In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit I’ve been accused of writing what I know on a good many occasions. Acquaintances, book reviewers, kind souls who’ve attended public readings, students, they’ve all charged me with writing autobiographical fiction. Sometimes, the critic notes a parallel between my background and that of a character. At other times, the reasoning is fuzzier. A woman at a reading once told me, “I liked your book a lot, but the stories made me think you’d be taller.” I’m never offended; at times, I’ve been weirdly flattered. Comments like these make me think I’m getting away with something.

The facts are these: I was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, the part of the country where most every word of fiction I’ve published takes place. I grew up around horses and hurricanes; my father worried about money, occasionally moonlighted to pay the bills, and died young; my mother smoked and paid mightily for it. If you read Corpus Christi: Stories, you’ll undoubtedly recognize elements from my life in the stories; however, very few of the experiences in the book are my own. In early versions of some stories, my impulse was to try to record how certain events in my life had played out, but by the third draft, I was prohibitively bored. I knew how, in real life, the stories ended, and I had a pretty firm idea of what they “meant,” so the story could not surprise me, or provide an opportunity for wonder. I was writing to explain, not to discover. The writing process was as exciting as completing a crossword puzzle I’d already solved. So I changed my approach.

Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it, but those details served to illuminate my imagination. Before, I’d forced my fiction to conform to the contours of my life; now I sought out any and every point where a plot could be rerouted away from what I’d known. The shift was seismic. My confidence waned, but my curiosity sprawled. I was writing fiction, to paraphrase William Trevor, not to express myself, but to escape myself. When I recall those stories now, the flashes of autobiography remind me of stars staking a constellation. Individually, the stars are unimportant; only when they map shapes in the darkness, shapes born of imagination, do we understand their light.

I don’t know the origin of the “write what you know” logic. A lot of folks attribute it to Hemingway, but what I find is his having said this: “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” If this is the logic’s origin, then maybe what’s happened is akin to that old game called Telephone. In the game, one kid whispers a message to a second kid and then that kid whispers it to a third and so on, until the message circles the room and returns to the first kid. The message is always altered, minimized, and corrupted by translation. “Bill is smart to sit in the grass” becomes “Bill is a smart-ass.” A similar transmission problem undermines the logic of writing what you know and, ironically, Hemingway may have been arguing against it all along. The very act of committing an experience to the page is necessarily an act of reduction, and regardless of craft or skill, vision or voice, the result is a story beholden to and inevitably eclipsed by source material.

Presented by

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is the director of creative writing at Harvard University. His Web site is www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.

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