Pushing the Limits of “Writing What You Know”


by Erika Dreifus

I never knew John Gardner, yet I’m certain he would have hated the story I submitted to my first fiction workshop. In The Art of Fiction, Gardner denounced the tendency to transcribe personal memory onto the page; he understood it was precisely that practice that many people, especially beginning writers, equated with the famous dictum to “write what you know.” I had fallen into that trap myself. That first workshop submission proved it. I had not yet read Gardner. I did not appreciate that “Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about own’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister.”

So I wrote about my own home town. My mother, although not an Episcopalian, had thoughtfully contributed the requisite—if healthy—younger sister. I sense Gardner would have shared my workshop’s reaction toward the oh-so-alluring protagonist, who bore a remarkable resemblance to an individual indeed known to me. Someone exactly my age. Who had attended my college. Listened to the same music I did. Drank café-au-lait.

I had not yet grasped what Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy have described in Creating Fiction as the task of developing “a working relationship with your memory.” Such a relationship entails more than mere transcription, or changing, as I did, “Starbucks” to “Café Alexandrine.” It requires deliberate picking and choosing of real-life memories, “molding them, playing with language, and emerging with altered forms of lived experience that tell a new kind of truth.” It requires pushing the limits. For awhile, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, new, transformed. Then, if done well, it has a resonance of its own.

In fact, pushing the limits of “writing what you know” is not optional for fiction writers. As Mario Vargas Llosa notes:

Although the starting point of a novelist’s invention is what he has lived, that is not, and cannot be, its ending point. The invention’s end is located at a considerable distance—sometimes a cosmic distance—from its origin, because as a theme is embodied in language and narrative, the autobiographical material is transformed, enriched (sometimes leached of value), integrated with other remembered or invented materials, and manipulated and structured […] until it achieves the complete autonomy that fiction must assume to live of its own accord.

Vargas Llosa speaks, too, of “failed fictions,” which my early workshop story certainly was. No question that there, as with other efforts, I fell victim to some of the “treacherous pitfalls” against which Leebron and Levy also caution. For instance, adherence to the record of the all-too-familiar restricts one’s ability to edit. The work may suffer when one retains characters and plot details simply because “it really happened” a certain way. Then, too, there’s always the implied corollary: writing what you don’t know—what isn’t within the realm of one’s direct experience—is out-of-bounds. Off-limits.

And with that misapprehension it is time for a major attitude adjustment.

Writing what you know is not tantamount to writing what you have lived.

But what, then, do we know?

I turn here to Elizabeth McCracken’s marvelous essay, “Lottery Ticket,” in which the writer describes a youth devoid of literary inspiration: “The central trauma of my childhood was this: I wanted to play the French horn, and my mother wouldn’t let me.” Sometimes, like McCracken, we just don’t have a choice. “A would-be writer is supposed to have either a rich inner-life or a rich outer one,” McCracken explains. “I had neither. Still, I had to get material from someplace, and so I stole it, piecemeal, from my family.”

McCracken’s strategy is one that I, too, have employed. And another solution that McCracken, who trained as a librarian, seems likely to condone is finding inspiration in archival material. Documents and photographs—whether holding personal/familial significance or totally unrelated “found texts” that trigger stories themselves—can also move writers beyond what they assume is a finite amount of “knowledge.”

But we needn’t travel too far through time or space to locate new “knowledge.” Simply looking outside our own lives into the world around us offers myriad possibilities. As Ann Patchett has explained:

There were many things I wanted to write about when I started Bel Canto [….]But more than anything, I wanted to find a way to grieve for something I had read about in the paper. The disasters I find there make me dizzy. They reel by me in a state of constant abstraction. Seven children shot in a school, 258 people killed in a plane crash, 10,000 lost in an earthquake. These are numbers I can’t understand, and I find myself thinking these are things that happen someplace far away, to people I don’t know. How could I begin to separate out every life, to acknowledge it, grieve for it, learn from it? I couldn’t do it every time, but with this story I thought, just once, I wanted to try.

Finally—and this idea itself stems, in fact, from a broader concept of jump-starting one’s work with exercises, such as those in Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, from which the following tactic is taken—simply taking the time to write down what you know about your story—and what you don’t—will expand and deepen its possibilities. Because in truth, at the start of any project, many (if not most) fiction writers don’t really know a whole lot.

During the first week of my MFA program, one of my classmates declared, regarding the source of our writerly inspirations, “All we have are our memories.” Our morning seminar had focused on memoir-writing. My classmate, however, was a fellow fictionist, and he was speaking of the source of all creative work. Even without the benefit of having Vargas Llosa’s words at my fingertips, or Patchett’s essay, or McCracken’s, I disagreed.

Maybe that instinct stemmed from my own doctoral training in history. Where I wrote, a lot, about things I hadn’t already known, that weren’t already stored in my memory, that I needed—wanted—to learn, along the way. Which isn’t, necessarily, the same as a lot of personal memory. A lot of lived experience. Like “academics,” fiction writers can “know” in ways other than direct personal experience. We, too, can make what was once unfamiliar, familiar. That is why we, too, conduct research. That is why we, too, have powers of empathy, and observation. It’s very exciting, actually, to see how much one doesn’t know, how much remains to discover. To imagine. And to write.

Originally published in The Willamette Writer, May 2004.

Works Cited

  • Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage, 1991.
  • Goldberg, Bonni. Room to Write. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1996.
  • Leebron, Fred, and Andrew Levy. Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
  • McCracken, Elizabeth. “Lottery Ticket.” In The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ed. Frank Conroy. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 145-54.
  • Patchett, Ann. “A Way to See Life Anew.” The Writer. June 2002: 24.
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. Letters to a Young Novelist. 1997. Trans. Natasha Wimmer. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002.

This essay was originally published in The Willamette Writer, May 2004, adapted from a paper delivered at a Vanderbilt University Graduate Colloquium on “Limits of the Past: The Human Sciences and the Turn to Memory,” April 2002.