Columns

Write What You Can Imagine

Stephen Henighan

Like most advice given to writers, the injunction to “write what you know” is misleading. A staple of writing workshops, this dictum encourages a literalism that reins in creativity. Writers who internalize “write what you know” risk never finding out how far imagination can carry them. These writers set up walls before they begin to write by circumscribing their identity and the experiences to which it gives them access. The establishment of self-imposed limits is an inevitable, and even salutary, part of an artist’s development. But these limits must emerge out of the writer’s creative explorations. To start with assumptions about what you can and cannot do, rather than to discover them through trial and error, is to curtail your imagination and deprive yourself of an essential stage in the process of developing your range and abilities.

One of the dangers of the “write what you know” maxim is that it clamps the neat boxes of unitary definitions of identity over the glorious messiness of life. In fact, few of us know what it is that we know. Out of necessity we adopt labels to describe our place in society, but the insights and outlook fostered by our experience clarify only as we draw upon them in our writing. People who may share cultural, ethnic, geographical or gender identifications, unavoidably, will differ in their personalities, emotional tendencies and perceptions of the community where they were raised, reacting differently to similar experiences. As we confirm our adult identities, these discrepancies become more pronounced. Recently, in an airport shuttle, I found myself sitting next to a high school classmate whom I had not seen in more than three decades. In our late teens we were both members of the “Reach for the Top” quiz team. In my recollection, we had similarly alienated views of our rough rural high school. My subsequent educational experience made me regard having attended this school as a handicap. This has led me to emphasize the negative features of my experiences there: the cultural narrow-mindedness of students and teachers, the pervasive drugs and violence, the low academic level of many classes, the sinister fondness of certain teachers for inflicting corporal punishment. My former classmate, who has become a research scientist, remembered receiving a solid preparation for university in his biology and chemistry classes. Now living in a region of the southern United States where public schools are held in low esteem and middle-class parents pay to educate their children privately, he recalled our public school, which was seen as deficient by Ontario standards, as better than most. “That place didn’t give us a bad start,” he said. I choked on my reply. Even though we came from similar backgrounds and had belonged to the same small clique during our school years, our respective recollections of that time would not be recognizable as being based on the same institution.

While youthful experiences shape us, adult experience shapes how we enshrine the memories of our youth. Our underestimation of how much we learn in adulthood can deter us from valorizing our ability to imagine lives that we have not lived. Sometimes, in fiction, the life whose elaboration requires hard imaginative work is more persuasive than that which is dictated with confessional intensity by our surface conception of our identity. This is a difficult lesson to learn. A few years ago, after a period working in Guatemala, I started to write a novel set in the country. My work supervising a semester abroad for Canadian students, which included accompanying them on field trips to rural development projects, had introduced me to non-governmental organizations and the lives of the foreigners, mainly Americans and Canadians, who worked for these organizations. During the same period, for my own interest, I took intensive private lessons in the indigenous Mayan language of Cakchiquel; this not only taught me some of the language, but led to weeks of conversation (in Spanish) with Mayan women from nearby villages.

When I returned home, I started to write a novel about the tensions in a long-distance relationship between two middle-class Canadian professionals, one of whom was an NGO worker in Guatemala. The fact that I was in a long-distance relationship myself at this time strengthened my conviction that I was writing what I knew. To create an ironic counterpoint to my protagonists’ dilemma, I included brief interludes describing the marriage of an indigenous Mayan couple. I hesitated before attempting these passages. “I really can’t do this,” I thought. While the scenes about the Canadians flowed from my word processor without effort, I ransacked my imagination and agonized over every line to write the Mayan scenes. Though short, these sections detained me for days. When I showed the manuscript to two editors from respected literary presses, both said that the novel was a non-starter because the Canadian characters were unconvincing. The Mayan scenes, on the other hand, they described as credible and promising. It took me months to realize that I had not done the hard work of imagining my protagonists’ lives, and years to acknowledge that, in spite of the chasms of cultural difference, economic status, language and gender (my central Mayan character was a woman), my real Guatemala novel resided in the murmurings left in my head by my conversations with the women from the villages. I had developed a feeling for their lives, problems, assumptions, beliefs, voices and “cosmovision,” as they called it, that I did not have for those of NGO workers. I began to string the Mayan scenes together and found that the characters’ desires overlapped in ways that were dramatic and meaningful. The scenes required to complete the story were arduous to write, but they emerged with weight and authenticity. Years after I had begun, and in a form I had not expected, my manuscript was finished. This time readers told me it was viable. To my surprise, I had written a novel about the life of a Mayan woman in Guatemala. I’m convinced that this novel, The Path of the Jaguar, is far from being the only work of fiction that exists because a writer stopped trying to write what he knew and allowed himself to write what he was able to imagine.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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