Where Does Good Writing Come From?

“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.”

From whence comes a good idea? How can I cause it to blossom once it springs forth? (Photo by Larry Garland}

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.

4 comments to Where Does Good Writing Come From?

  • This post makes me want to be a better writer.

  • Thank you, Georgia. I’m pleased that it made you think and that you enjoyed it.

  • peter

    “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.”

    I don’t think I have ever known an aspiring writer to begin with a criticism of good writers. I think it’s virtually impossible to qualify or quantify under any circumstances or discription, regardless of how lengthy, and verbiage apportioned, and gifted said critic might be, to justify such an inflated, and without qualification, overblown analysis of a “good writer”.

    A good writer Mr. Garland, doesn’t have to say they are. Thier words speak for themselves. A writer, good or bad, writes with a passion and an internal voice, akin to the voice of God. It’s devine, singular, a separate and shared space. It’s not what they know, but it’s the knowing and the sounds they hear, the voices that talk,the spaces between time, and reality. It’s love, making it, foreplay, climax, and afterglow. It’s the taste of sweat, semen, orchids at a funeral, and lillies at a wedding, the babtismal child inviolate, the cacaphony of a NY city street, or the silence of a sequesterd rural cemetary. It’s the voice, Mr. Garland. Its the magic when you read a phrase, a sentence so good, your mouth waters, and begs to be spoken aloud, and remembered and caressed in the mind and the heart of the reader. It’s the chapter that takes you somewhere, you have never been, but by closing your eyes, you can touch it, taste it, feel it’s pulse, and surrender yourself completely to that moment. Analyzing good writing is like digging a grave, once you have done it, better just pile the dirt back in, because the real story will be on the headstone, and that’s just the beginning.

  • Peter, yours is the age-old question asked in writing classes worldwide: Can good/great writing be taught? Novelist Tom Robbins is quoted in tomorrow’s edition (April 1, 2012) of the New York Times saying, “There are no prodigies in literature. Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.” You complain of my criticism, but it is a critique—offered honestly and openly—with the goal of learning about writing in order to write better.

    Your writing “voice” is beautiful, Peter. Achieving that kind of distinctive voice is something I aspire to in my writing. (I don’t aspire to be a writer; I am a writer.) Your distinctive voice comes out of your unique history, and it is pure and lovely; but that alone does not make a great writer. A good editor can adjust spelling and punctuation without detracting from the author’s voice, so that’s not a significant problem, but there is a discipline required, also. And a meaningful, essential structure arises from application of that learned discipline. That is what I seek and what I was talking about in my essay. There is no shame in questioning great writing, for the sin resides in not questioning what it is that we love and why we love it—why it works. I parse it to learn what makes it great. Therefore, my questioning doesn’t belittle the work, it praises it.

    Perhaps great writers are both born and made, in concert. Certainly, great writing cannot manifest without a great deal of reading first. It is in our assimilation of what we read that we begin to write better, and from that wellspring my essay flowed—and purely so.

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