Write What You Can Imag­ine

Self-im­posed lim­its blot out the glo­ri­ous messi­ness of life

Geist - - Geist - 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 non­govern­men­tal 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

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