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.

Another confession: part of me dies inside when a student whose story has been critiqued responds to the workshop by saying, “You can’t object to the _________ scene. It really happened! I was there!” The writer is giving preference to the facts of an experience, the so-called literal truth, rather than fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity. Conceived this way, the writer’s story is relegated to an inferior and insurmountable station; it can neither compete with, nor live without, the ur-experience. Such a writer’s sole ambition is for the characters and events to represent other and superior—read: actual—characters and events. Meaning, the written story has never been what mattered most. Meaning, the reader is meant to care less about the characters and more about whoever inspired them, and the actions in a story serve to ensure that we track their provenance and regard that material as truer. Meaning, the story is engineered—and expected—to be about something. And aboutness is all but terminal in fiction.

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.

Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.

Take, for example, The Lazarus Project, by Bosnian-born author Aleksandar Hemon. In this superb and wrenching novel, Hemon entwines two narratives—the 1908 murder of Lazarus Averbuch in Chicago, and the present-day journey of a writer named Brik through eastern Europe to research a book about Lazarus. Superficially, the novel seems as entrenched in autobiography as it is in history: Brik, like Hemon, was born in Bosnia, and Hemon lives, like the fictional Brik, in Chicago; Hemon, like Brik, also traveled through Europe to research the project with a photographer friend, and sure enough, both a photographer friend and photographs can be found in the novel. However, The Lazarus Project is far more than the sum of its parts. The raw materials serve Hemon’s fiction in the same way that paint, canvas, and onions served Cezanne’s Still Life With Onions. The goal isn’t to represent an experience, but instead to create a piece of art that is itself an experience. In a recent interview, Hemon, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, said, “I reserve the right to get engaged with any aspect of human experience, and so that means that I can—indeed I must—go beyond my experience to engage. That’s non-negotiable.” Amen.

And what of Lorrie Moore’s masterpiece “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”? Upon its publication in 1997, many readers assumed Moore’s short story of parents coping with their one-year-old boy’s kidney cancer was nonfiction; after all, her family had endured similar trauma and the mother in the story was, like Moore, a teacher and fiction writer. (At one point, the father encourages the mother to “take notes” on the ordeal so she can write and sell a story to offset the mounting medical expenses.) And yet the story’s potency is attributable to the architecture of fiction, the distance that Moore pries open between her family and the family on the page. A straightforward recounting of the experience would merely confirm what reader and author already know: cancer is horrible, watching children suffer is horrible, etc. To affect the reader, to reveal the fullness and force of such trauma, Moore invokes her imagination. She deploys humor, wordplay, dramatized scenes, a complex (mostly) third-person narration, and an apparatus of irony built on the crucial conceit that the mother lacks the necessary skill and courage to write this story. As she makes her way to see her son after his surgery, her thinking sums up the limitations of simply writing what you know: “How can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things … One cannot go to a place and speak of it; one cannot both see and say, not really.”

Or, speaking of war stories, consider Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories, The Things They Carried. The book renders the myriad horrors, exhilarations, doldrums, and tragedies of the Vietnam War with vividness and intimacy, and because the author is a veteran, the book’s power might be assumed to emanate from O’Brien’s firsthand knowledge. And maybe it does. But in “Good Form,” one of the short-short stories in the collection, the narrator says, “Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” I’ve always found an abiding comfort in this claim, and the comfort is compounded by the fact that the narrator is a man who shares so much of the author’s pedigree—his experience in Vietnam, his current literary vocation, even his age and name. O’Brien could have written the “happening-truth” of his experience and called it a day. (In fact, he did just that in his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.) But by choosing fiction here, especially after having written a nonfiction account of his experiences, he tacitly acknowledges that something is gained by setting imagination loose on history, something profound and revelatory and vital: empathy. Empathy, to my mind, is the channel through which writer and reader can most assuredly connect with the characters. And if personal experience constrains a story, often to the point of dullness and abstraction, then empathy simultaneously sharpens and emancipates it. O’Brien writes:

Here is happening-truth, I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and afraid to look …

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

Another deeper, more essential part of me dies when a workshop student says, “What I wanted to do was __________.” The idea of a writer “wanting” to do something in a story unhinges me. At best, such desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda. I feel pity for the characters, a real sense of futility. I’m reminded of Ron Carlson’s hilarious story, “What We Wanted to Do,” in which a group of villagers intends to spill a cauldron of boiling oil on the Visigoths storming their gates. The oil, however, never reaches its boiling point, so when the villagers commence their dousing, the liquid is lukewarm and the Visigoths aren’t so much scalded as they are terribly pissed off. The result is their most vicious attack. The lesson is a good one for fiction writers: stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point.

And writing what you know is knotted up with intention, and intention in fiction is always related to control, to rigidity, and more often than not, a little solipsism. The writer seems to have chosen an event because it illustrates a point or mounts an argument. When a fiction writer has a message to deliver, a residue of smugness is often in the prose, a distressing sense of the story’s being rushed, of the author’s going through the motions, hurrying the characters toward whatever wisdom awaits on the last page. As a reader, I feel pandered to and closed out. Maybe even a little bullied. My involvement in the story, like the characters’, becomes utterly passive. We are there to follow orders, to admire and applaud the author’s supposed insight.

Maybe, though, the hardest thing for me to hear in workshop is a student’s claim that he isn’t “comfortable” writing certain stories. The words are almost blasphemous to me, equally saddening and maddening. Usually, the student’s discomfort relates to race or gender, sexuality or class. He feels ill-equipped to write about characters that don’t resemble him in the mirror and bedroom, so he reverts to writing what he knows. I argue that if the subject or character is intimidating, then that’s exactly what the writer should be exploring in fiction. My students worry about being invasive or predatory, and few things frighten them more than charges of appropriation and literary trespassing. But I see an altogether more menacing threat: the devaluing of not only imagination, but also compassion. And if empathy is important to fiction, compassion is invaluable. Compassion is empathy on steroids.

Was Toni Morrison a slave? Did she ever slit a child’s throat? Was Nabokov, in light of his “fancy prose style,” a murderer? Has Haruki Murakami ever constructed a flute from the souls of cats? Yes, Flannery O’Connor limped, but did she ever lose a wooden leg to a huckster Bible salesman? Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam, but, as the narrator of “Good Form” says, “almost everything else is invented.” Even without extended research, I can guarantee Ron Carlson has never spilled oil onto the head of a Visigoth.

All of this recalls for me an interview with Allan Gurganus, the sublime novelist who so thoroughly imagined Lucy Marsden, that oldest living Confederate widow who dished all her secrets. Gurganus says, “As an amateur historian, I’m forever aware that ‘the second story’ of a building once referred to its murals.” I also remember reading that the murals painted on a building’s interior walls usually depicted a tale from history, and thus, if you were on the fourth floor, if you were seeing the fourth mural, you were on the fourth story. In the interview, Gurganus goes on to say, “For fantasists like me, history constitutes the ground floor only, staff entrance. We all enter there but—given our spirit yearnings, our malformed characters, as soon as possible, we ascend.” This seems inviolably true to me, and impossibly inspiring. Writers may enter their stories through literal experience, through the ground floor, but fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.

I’m also thinking again about my fiction workshop, those Wednesdays spent talking about people who don’t exist, and how chilled the students are when I discourage them from writing what they know. To reanimate them—or at least salvage my course-evaluation scores—I say fiction is an act of courage and humility, a protest against our mortality, and we, the authors, don’t matter. What matters is our characters, those constructions of imagination that can transcend our biases and agendas, our egos and entitlements and flesh. Trust your powers of empathy and invention, I say. Trust the example of the authors you love to read—Flaubert: “Emma, c’est moi”—and trust that your craft, when braided with compassion, will produce stories that matter both to you and to readers you’ve never met.

The students mostly buy it. Week by week, their stories are arresting and rewarding, and with each revision, I feel more optimistic, more reassured and moved by their work. My students succeed about as often as most writers do, as often as I do—in other words, often enough. As I read their good fiction, though, I sometimes wonder if I haven’t misunderstood something simple and essential. I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth, isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? If we succeed, if the characters are fully imagined, if they are so beautifully real that they quicken and rise off the page, then maybe our own experiences will feel smaller, our actions less consequential. Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield. And maybe we encounter still another, more insidious threat—the threat that if we do our jobs too well, if we powerfully render characters who are untethered from our experience, they’ll supplant us in the reader’s mind. Maybe we worry that fiction’s vividness will put our own brief and negligible lives into too stark a relief, and the reader, seduced by literature’s permanence, will leave us behind. Maybe we worry we’ll be forgotten. Maybe we’re afraid of what we want most—for our characters to outlive us—and maybe the possibility that the writer, not the reader, will get lost in the pages of a great book is, ultimately, too much for us to bear.

By Bret Anthony Johnston