There are A LOT of things on my I Don’t Know list. Here are some:
How to improve a toddler’s sleep patterns
The capital of, well, most countries (geography is NOT my strong point, but I can navigate my way around just about anywhere… except New Jersey)
What is in peanut butter that makes it so addictive
How to not be skilled at something without getting frustrated
What’s for dinner tonight (ug)
How to remove a whole piece of sidewalk chalk from the inside one of my car’s brakes (I have no idea how Mister got it in there, but luckily it fell out itself. I had visions of my car disappearing into a cloud of blue chalk dust)
Until I just looked it up, the real name of a potato bug (woodlouse or pill millipede, depending on the number of body segments)
So these are the things I can’t write about. Right? Maybe not. A critique partner shared an article from The Atlantic Magazine, titled Don’t Write What You Know by Bret Anthony Johnston. I have to admit, reading the title sent some shock waves through my body. If I don’t write what I know, then what do I write about? I kept reading to find out.
In the article, Bret Anthony Johnston says he encourages his Harvard writing workshop attendees not to take the “write what you know” piece of writing advice. Why not? He compares writing about true events to working a crossword puzzle he’s already solved. He says it is, “writing to explain, not to discover.”Also, a writer is in danger of writing the events just because they happened, and ignoring the emotional, narrative, and creative elements unique to the story. Writers might begin thinking that telling the truth of the events is more important than the truth revealed in true fiction.
I’ve seen this at work in stories before. Husband is currently reading a book about fielding in baseball. The main character, who has never committed a fielding error, commits his first when the ball he throws to first base is carried away by an unbelievable gust of wind off the nearby lake. Sometimes the unbelievable happens in real life. But, unless a writer can make it believable, it doesn’t belong in a story.
Johnston doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t use anything they know for stories. He says, “His [the writer’s] experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it.” Writers need to take inspiration from experiences. But, he says, that is where it should stop. By not activating the imagination and writing a recount of events, the writer risks writing without empathy. And “Empathy, to my mind, is the channel through which writer and reader can most assuredly connect with the characters.”
I like the “What if?” game for using experiences to stir my imagination. Mister listens to Sirius XM’s Kid’s Place Live (okay, maybe I like to listen to it too). In the afternoon, the host, Mindy, asks listeners to call in with their breaking news. The other day, a girl called in to say that a bird flew in to her sliding glass door. Her mother brought the bird in to nurse back to health and put it in a cage. The bird escaped and flew right back in to the same door. Immediately my mind started playing the game, ignoring the obvious that the bird was probably flying into the reflection the first time and what it thought was freedom the second time. What if the bird needs glasses? What if its birdie flight pattern from the tower was wrong? What if the bird was somehow magnetically attracted to glass? My ideas might be getting a little ridiculous, but I have to be open to the ridiculous in order for all of the ideas to come out. Besides, that ridiculous idea might just be usable later.
Maybe I’d change the title of the article to Don’t Write EXACTLY What You Know, But Rather a Creative Interpretation. Okay, maybe that is a little long. How about HOW to Write What You Know or How NOT to Write What You Know. Or maybe we’ll just stick with Johnston’s title. Regardless, I know a lot of his article will be sticking with me.
I’ll leave you with a final word from Johnston on don’t write what you know: “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.”