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Don’t Write What You Know

From the essay, “Don’t Write What You Know” (Writer’s Notebook II)

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, 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—i.e., actual—characters and events. Meaning, the written story has never been what mattered most. Meaning, the reader is intended 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.

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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Comments: 5

(31) Comments

  1. elrond says:

    I thought “write what you know” refers more to genre when it is based on personal experience. For example, John le Carre writes spy novels, etc.

  2. KevDog says:

    I had a similar discussion with a playwright over a scene I wanted to cut in his play. His response was as you would expect, “But that really happened to me!”. Mine–after several rounds of him questioning my artistic worth–was, “You slept last night too, that doesn’t make it worth putting on stage.” Drama first, real life second.

  3. I remember that experience in a college playwriting class. One of my fellow-students kept insisting that the characters and events were “exactly drawn from life.” The instructor and the other students kept saying: “Yes, but they don’t make sense to _us_.”

    But I think my biggest objection to that old advice is that it leaves no room for imagination. Where’s creativity, without imagination?

(3) Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Reading: Bret Anthony Johnston on (not) writing what you know. His essay is an excerpt of Writer’s Notebook II, published by the folks at Tin House. […]

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