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Writing What I Don’t Know

Bret Anthony Johnston says, “Don’t Write What You Know”:

If you read Corpus Christi: Stories, you’ll undoubtedly recognize elements from my life; however, very few of the experiences in the book are my own. In early versions of some stories, my impulse was to try to record how certain events in my life had played out, but by the third draft, I was prohibitively bored. I knew how, in real life, the stories ended, and I had a pretty firm idea of what they “meant,” so the story could not surprise me or provide an opportunity for wonder. I was writing to explain, not to discover. The writing process was as exciting as completing a crossword puzzle I’d already solved. So I changed my approach.

Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it, but those details served only to illuminate my imagination. Previously, I’d forced my fiction to conform to the contours of my life; now I sought out any and every point where a plot could be rerouted from what I’d known. The shift was seismic. My confidence waned, but my curiosity sprawled.

I’m not a fiction writer, but I have had a similar experience in that the most exciting and rewarding writing experiences for me have arisen not from my writing what I already know, but rather from exploring what I want to know.

For me, the best prompt for a book, or even a long essay, comes when I realize two things: first, that a particular subject is fascinatingly important, and second, that I don’t know nearly enough to write about it. The impulse, then, is first to research, to learn, and only after that to write. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I agree to write things only because I know that the requirement to write will give me the perfect excuse do the research that I love. Freedom happen when your obligations and your desires join hands.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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