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.
16 thoughts on “Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: Write What You (Don’t) Know”
I loved this post! It reminds me of a creative writing fiction workshop I took. My instructor told me about a man who made up a story about having a girlfriend with cancer, which ultimately helped a family who had recently lost their daughter to the same disease. Even though the story was a lie in the end, it carried truth for that particular family and comforted them. It also reminded me of the quote by Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Thank you for chiming in, Kelly. Your thoughts are right in line with what Doyle is suggesting.
Thank you for sharing this, Kelly.
I really enjoyed your post! I like how you point out that the main character in most fiction stories is one that most people can relate too. It doesn’t matter if it is a whimsical setting such as Hogwarts, or if it is set in the completely real New York City. What matters most is what the character goes through and how the reader can relate.
Thanks for your comment. Willa Cather said “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
This post fits in so well with this book I’ve started to read, “Ron Carlson Writes a Story”. In the beginning of the book I came across his pretty famous quote of “I always write about my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not”.
It seems like a contradiction but Carlson goes on to explain how you need to treat your stories as if they had happened to you, to make them personal, even if they didn’t start out as your stories. He conveys that writers must have a great deal of empathy.
I also appreciated your thoughts on the Old Testament. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories which, I think, are often overlooked, as far as being fully expressed narratives with complex themes and ambiguous interpretations, thanks to politics and everything else detrimental to appreciating the strengths of storytelling.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story is a great book on the craft of writing fiction. “Stay in the room!”
Thanks for the insight.
Thank you for the great post, Darrin!
Regarding the concept of “truth in fiction”… Have you read Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried? O’Brien wrote this collection of linked short stories about “his” experience in Vietnam. The protagonist is named Tim O’Brien, so I kept returning to the front matter to see if maybe I was mistaken and the book was non-fiction. (It isn’t.) In the chapter/story entitled “How to Tell a True War Story,” the narrator/protag says, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Throughout this book, O’Brien pushes his readers to experience the “truth” of the Vietnam War by telling stories that are emotional true but not necessarily factually true. People who read my short stories always seem to ask, “How in the world did you come up with THAT?” Thanks to Tim O’Brien’s fabulous explanation of truth in fiction, I have an answer.
I’ve read O’Brien’s work and really enjoy the layers of complexity he works into the truth about his characters. Their burdens make them incredibly tangible.
There are some very powerful truths in this. Fiction can teach just as many lessons as nonfiction and sometimes those lesson stick better or strike harder because even though the characters aren’t real, they become real in a sense in the imagination and their plights are events that either are close to what has happened to us or remind us closely of something we experienced. Art is a more powerful medium than some people realize.
So, so true, Bianca! Thank you for commenting!
I love that he says emotional truths are what guide a story, not the literal events of the characters. While what is happening to a character is entertaining and important, what really captures an audience is the uncovered truth or character development throughout the novel. You write about the truth that you know, not the literal story. Very insightful!
Emotional truths guide stories on and off the page; very insightful indeed!
“The great thing about fiction, and art in general, is that it gives us a way to escape the confines of our experiences.”– Love this thought and loved your insight. Art is simply timeless and never fades away, where as history books do. I loved how you made that observation, which is extremely true. Thanks for sharing this awesome post with us !
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
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