“Write what you know” has been the mantra of good writing almost forever. But does it stand up to scrutiny? It does not, argues Bret Anthony Johnston within the pages of the current issue of Atlantic Magazine—the Fiction Issue. Writing what you know, he says, is “writing to explain, not to discover,” and it negates the “opportunity for wonder.”
To wonder can mean to question, think or speculate. But it also means to marvel at, to be awestruck by or to be amazed with something newly learned. The probing wonder, the kind that prods the mind and causes it to explore the unknown, leads to the exhilarating wonder, which manifests as the joy of discovery. When the energy that a writer puts into a journey triggers adrenaline that then moves like magic into the joy of discovery, how could that joy not be transferred to the reader? The characters may be real or fictional. Their lives could be lived well or recklessly. Either way, we are pulled in. They get to us with their inspiring example or by their bad-boy antics. It is like some disease we can’t—then don’t want—to resist. Our blood boils with fever at their machinations, and we thirst for what’s still to come.
This is why no one wants a good story to end. We want to dwell in the story, to be part of the progression as it unfolds from a myriad of possibilities—for from possibilities we mine the wonder. A good writer will not attempt to corral the story, for she knows its wild spirit cannot survive if confined by the borders of her experience. It has its own life to live, and so, a good writer lets it go. This frees writers from worry that their life experiences might be less interesting than those of others. We are drawn to the mystery of what we don’t know. As readers, we are likely to have little interest in hearing the writer tell what he knows about his life—and a great deal of curiosity about the unknowns the writer explores as we go along for the ride. The human condition is a callout to curiosity, and intersecting somewhere down that curving path runs the road to great writing.
Good writers don’t recite lessons they’ve learned. They hunt for answers. They chase their illusive unknowns, and the appeal is in the thrill of the chase. Make the reader a member of the hunting party. The sweat of active participation—how that rivulet feels running down your back, the musty smell of the horse’s hair matted underneath you, the foam from your steed’s mouth flying in the wind—all these details come from the writer’s experience and make the story real through their affect on your characters. Knowledge is the backdrop, the foundation, the supporting structure, and even the sensibility for what comes next. It is the probing-stick that we use to explore the unknown. But too often it also becomes the crutch we depend on. We think the details are the story, so we stop there, and that kills the story. Details are not the story.
Good fiction writing is not storytelling in the sense of detailing what happened, no matter how beautifully we describe a scene. Good writing gives us a peek into what could happen. Experience is not the critical ingredient—wonder is. Good writers learn to let go, for the author does not tell the story so much as the protagonist lives it. As Johnston says in his superb essay, “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things. Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.” Read Johnston’s excellent take on all this here: http://bit.ly/oe6XLx.