Bret Anthony Johnston. ‘Don’t Write What You Know.’ the Atlantic Monthly, 2011.
Bernadette handed out this article in class. Johnston teaches a writing class and amongst the hints he gives his students is, ‘don’t write what you know,’ which freaks the students out because they have previously been told to ‘write what you know.’ Johnston explains that he uses his life experiences as a structure from which his imagination can illuminate his writing until his ‘real life’ is no longer apparent in his fiction.
I have heard and read both streams of advice. In my writing I am doing a bit of both, I suppose:
WHAT I KNOW: Timaru, Pakeha culture.
WHAT I DON’T KNOW: Timaru during the 1950s, masculine culture during the 1950s, coastal trade vessels, homosexuality, and marriage.
I have never experienced first-hand the ‘don’t know’ list. I have researched, have had inklings, observed, and looked up photographs, and used my perception but the only thing I really know is Timaru and what it feels like to live there.
When I first started thinking of the novel, many moons ago, I had thought of having a father-son narrative but I decided to cut myself some slack and have the father-daughter, and then finally decided on the husband-wife characters. That decision process has taken me far away, then closer, and then further away from what I know.
I haven’t been too bothered about the literal truth in my writing either, to a certain extent. I hope that’s not just laziness on my part. The Port Loop Road, that I’ve named, and incidents such as the expanding wheat containers, did not happen in the late 1950s. The Port Loop road was built in the late 1960s and the wheat containers expanded when I was a teenager – early 90s. I don’t care – the motifs serve another purpose, that of emotional intent but I imagine that some people who may read the book (if it gets published) may be bothered about the ‘truth’. I guess I will tell them that my experiences have liberated my imagination (and try not to sound like a wanker) – as Johnston suggests writers do, in order to tell a ‘true’ story. Johnston also says that, ‘something is gained by setting imagination loose on history, something profound and revelatory and vital: empathy.’ It seems a little lofty for me to proclaim empathy but I agree that it is important – as a reader you have to care and relate to the people you are reading about – and it’s the author’s responsibility, I suppose, to make the reader feel something (that sounds really manipulative).
Johnston makes one comment that reminds me of my supervisor. Johnston says, ‘stories fuelled by intentions never reach their boiling point.’ My supervisor is suspicious of ‘ideas’ fuelling fiction. They are saying the same thing – that writing with a particular focus results in unsatisfying fiction because it ends up being too structured, too perfect, so perfect it is unreadable. I think my story has benefited from what my supervisor calls unconscious writing, it has added more feeling just writing what comes into my head without worrying too much about the structure, the ability to just go with it and see what happens. I think that is called imagination.
I have a little story about imagination. When I was in primary school, about 6 or 7, the teacher asked the class to draw an animal that Mother Nature hadn’t invented. Now, I think the task was rather hard – Mother Nature has quite an extended folio of creation under her belt. Nevertheless, I thought and thought about what I could draw. I drew something – I can’t remember what. What I do remember is that Leanna Edwards drew a ladybug, but instead of the ladybug having a red body with black spots, it had a black body with red spots. At the time I thought that was cheating. I felt quite ripped-off, but perhaps it was just leaving the scaffold of experience underneath a new creation, letting the imagination scatter the facts to make something new. Whenever I think of imagination I think of that ladybug.