The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Don't Write What You Know

The following is an excerpt from Bret Anthony Johnston's essay, "Don't Write What You Know," orginally published in the Atlantic. The full essay is here.

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.


Read the rest of the story here. Learn more about its author at bretanthonyjohnston.com. Photo credit: Atlantic magazine, Fiction 2011 issue.