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Don’t Write What You Know: Bret Anthony Johnston

An excerpt from “Don’t Write What You Know,” which appears in The Writer’s Notebook II, a forthcoming collection of craft essays from Tin House Books.

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; 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 only to illuminate my imagination. Previously, 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 from what I’d known. The shift was seismic. My confidence waned, but my curiosity sprawled. I had been 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.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: His work appears in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The Oxford American, and Tin House, and in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories, The Puschart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, The Best American Sports Writing, and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best.

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