As someone who has dedicated the majority of his life to – for lack of a better term – making shit up, the popular dictum of “write what you know” is troubling. Or maybe troubling isn’t the correct word. A better word is limiting. If I were restricted to writing about places I had been, people I had met, and situations I had encountered, my writing options would feel pretty grim.
The great thing about fiction, and art in general, is that it gives us a way to escape the confines of our experiences. It also allows us to overlay order, structure, and meaning upon the randomness of everyday life. Fiction lets us enter the minds, the circumstances, of people we will never be. Literary scholar Michael Bryson wrote that “Art . . . raises us out of ourselves for tantalizingly brief, yet intensely felt and long-remembered moments, reminds us that we are somehow part of something greater than ourselves – even if that something is illusory and mythical.” (http://www.brysons.net/academic/fictionofanabsolute.html)
The experiences of our lives do not follow a tidy arc. They lack the focus of a central conflict. They provide little, if any, symbolism. The people we know are not protagonists or antagonists, even if they act antagonistic at times. Art gives us the chance to shape the world, to highlight connections between events and people and places, to suggest symbolic value – multiplicity of meanings and the entire range of human complexity – within the everyday. This is why stories are read again and again. When we allow fictional elements to enter the mix, these connections, symbols, and shapes get stronger, more complete, and more nuanced. It’s why art lasts while autobiographies and history books generally fade away. When is the last time someone handed you a history book from, say, the 1970s, and said “You gotta read this!”? Art is timeless, while fact-based historical books usually have short shelf lives.
And yet American culture largely prioritizes nonfiction over fiction. Remember when James Frey couldn’t find a publisher for his novel, A Million Little Pieces? Then he decided to pretend it was non-fiction, and it became a bestseller. Folks say they don’t want to read about something that “hasn’t happened and probably won’t ever happen.” I honestly can’t understand the reasoning behind this statement.
Even if the events in a story or novel haven’t literally happened, what has happened are the emotional truths of the story. Huck Finn may have never walked the Earth, but his dilemma – his internal conflict between caring for Negro Jim while being told by society that Jim is less than human – are universal and powerful.
Even better, because Huck is fictional, this means we all can know him. We can all possess him; we can all have our own vision of what he looks like, sounds like, etc. Same goes for Romeo and Juliet, Harry Potter, Willie Wonka, Emma Bovary, Holden Caulfield, and so on. These characters are more alive – more truthful – than historical figures for the simple reason that they are not literal flesh-and-blood people. They are eternal because we help create them with our minds and imaginations.
This is why I get depressed when people insist that Old Testament stories happened literally, exactly as written – as if any admission of fictional elements would somehow diminish them, weaken their power. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true. Take Noah’s Ark for example. As a story, it shows us the heights to which people can rise in demonstrating faith. It shows the ultimately forgiving nature of a God who will also punish unrepentant wickedness. It shows us the covenant, the promise that God made with humans. Read as fiction the story is relatable and epic and larger-than-life, and it’s OK not to get hung up on the plausibility of a 500 year-old man building a boat the length of two football fields before rounding up a male and female of every species of animal on the planet. If I’m assured that the story is fictional, I’m along for the ride and can reap all the great wisdom it offers.
The terrific writer Eudora Welty offered her own version of “Write what you know.” Her version was this: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” Read that sentence a few times. What we know are people, places, conflicts. What we don’t know are the whys. By using a foundation of familiar human events and then allowing ourselves to expand into the realm of the fictional, we can begin an inquiry into everything we “don’t know” about what it is to be human in this odd, fleeting world.