Overview and Rationale
Fiction writers—and especially fiction students—face a contradiction about where their work should come from. Fiction involves the invention of characters and narratives that aren’t real, and this is broadly understood as a holistic act of imagination. Yet fiction, regardless of subject or genre, is also necessarily populated by the stuff of reality, and students are often reminded of this by the classroom adage to “write what you know.” Most students understand this to mean write the truth, but truth is an abstraction that is slippery and unattached to the purpose of literary fiction. I propose that this adage actually refers not to truth but to authenticity, which can be defined as “the quality or texture of reality” within a piece of writing. Understanding this distinction is part of a wider attempt to resolve fiction’s demands upon the writer. Our purpose in this exercise is to leverage our intimate experience as a tool for layering authenticity and specificity in our work.
Navigating this contradiction is sort of a paradox: make things up, but write what you know. As instructors, we recognize when stories are divorced from lived experience or intimate knowledge because they read as inexact—they lack the necessary authority to deeply consider their subjects. In the writing classroom, we see these stories all the time: characters whose jobs or dilemmas aren’t well understood, and whose inner psychologies remain generic or based on popular tropes.
Conversely, when stories are too reliant on the author’s lived experience, they come to resemble a diary or a personal essay; they depend too much on characters, details, or events as they were, and they do so perhaps at the expense of telling the best possible story.
Ideally, literary fiction finds a middle ground between the demands of invention and authenticity—between reality and make-believe. Charting this middle ground can be a unique path for each writer, but there are common methods by which we might attempt this journey. In this exercise, we begin by spending time considering an epistemological approach to our own knowledge and familiarity. What do I know? How do I know it? Where does it come from, and what does this knowledge mean?
Answering these questions takes a willingness to examine one’s self in a patient and unflinching manner. See it as a self-interrogation, a psychotherapy session with an audience of one. The substance of this interrogation can be arranged into a map of one’s knowledge: a pyramid of what the writer knows, in descending levels of specificity. We begin with broad regions of familiarity and then move into more specific categories until we end up at intimate, uniquely known truths, memories, and descriptions. These specific bits of information—impressions of a neighbor’s body language, the psychology of an abusive relationship, the specific hue of a polluted sunset—are what we call free agent details.
Having done this work, we now have two parallel approaches for creating a sense of authority and authenticity in our writing. The first is to see the nature of “true” details as the atoms that compose a scene, a character, a story. Rather than depend on a broader stroke of memory—the whole story as we remember it happening—we are cutting out little pieces of truth at their most specific and collaging them into the world on the page. The second approach is to use our knowledge maps to highlight the things we don’t know but probably should—to show us regions where the author can use research and exploration to cover the gaps in their personal authority.
Ultimately, authenticity is a term that is most useful for a fiction writer when it is understood as a tool of both rhetoric and craft. Exploring one’s authentic knowledge (and the gaps within it) requires epistemological reflection and a conscious, patient listing of the results. By foregrounding this kind of reflection, this exercise is meant to explore the practical interplay between truth and invention—first by atomizing a writer’s authentic knowledge and experience, and then by populating these details strategically back into a narrative. It works in the spirit of another adage I find pertinent to fiction writing: the most convincing lies contain a kernel of truth.
- Either in class or as a take-home assignment, ask students to divide a piece of paper into four sections labeled 1, 2, 3, and 4. Students may also label four separate pieces of paper accordingly.
- Begin by having the students think about what they’re familiar with. Give them a few minutes without writing just to think. Pose questions like, What are the biggest regions of knowledge you have? How would you categorize them?
- In section one (or on page one), have the students map or chart several of these areas of familiarity.
- In section two (or on page two), have the students create a subcategory from one of their areas in section one, and ask them to think of subjects within that area that they know something about. These should be more specific than section one. Give them five to seven minutes to make a list.
- In section three (or on page three), have the students create a list of hyperspecific details from the region of knowledge in which they are working. These can be phrased as “I know what it’s like to…” or “I know about the…,” though the phrasing should be left open-ended. The goal is to encourage them to attempt the most intimate and specific pieces of knowledge that they have about or in relation to a subject.
Push them to be unflinching. If you like, give them five minutes to consider the things about which they have unique and specific insider knowledge. Preference the details or impressions that are personal or private or that they would otherwise resist looking at and sharing.
- In section four (or on page four), have the students look back at their earlier work and consider what it is they don’t know about these subjects. Have them create a list of unknowns that might be useful if they were writing a story in this area. One might say something like, “Here, consider a story you’re writing and the regions of knowledge that you don’t have that could be useful. What about your subjects, characters, or setting do you not know? Where can you find that information? How much is enough to make your writing plausible and authentic for the reader? Create a list for yourself that you can research to enhance the authenticity of your story.”
- Optional: You may also give them homework to follow up on this list of gaps. Have them research these gaps on their own and return later with some quick summaries of useful information they gathered, along with a list of sources for that information.
- This is important—let them keep their maps. They will write less risky things if they know they have to share these aloud. If you want to collect them, consider doing the exercise with them and sharing your own dark, intimate details. That is, if you make them share, lead by example.
- Finally, you may instruct them to write a story based on material from this exercise, or to integrate it into a story that they’re already working on, but the goal is to get them to use the results—and the process itself—as a way of generating realistic detail and authority in their writing.
Larger Assignment Prompt
All fiction has a lot of the writer in it. This exercise is about learning about your reservoirs of knowledge and where the gaps in those reservoirs lie. It’s about looking hard at what you actually know and at where you can—and should—use research to support the characters, stories, and places you invent. The goal isn’t to write the truth or create perfect verisimilitude, but to be plausibly convincing in the many elements (voice, character, detail, setting, and psychological dynamics) of your writing. It is to establish trust on as many levels as possible with your reader, and to seduce them by that trust.
This exercise involves mapping both your knowledge and the gaps of your knowledge relative to the subjects you’re writing about. Visualize this however you like, but it should lead to increasingly specific lists of useful details and impressions, along with a list of related subjects for which you might use research to increase your authority.
At the end of this exercise, you should have an authenticity map or list and a gaps map or list. The authenticity map can be done over and over. Within each new broad category you may narrow the focus accordingly to produce lists of impressions, memories, ideas, details, smells sounds, and images that are distinctly yours. The gaps map can be tailored to a story you’re working on so as to highlight opportunities for research to enhance your credibility and authority.
The goal for these lists is a lot like the goal of a writer’s journal. When using the material from your authenticity lists, try to treat each item as a “free agent detail.” Atomize the truth of your life into the smallest parts, then repopulate your fiction with the dust and texture of reality rather than the reality itself. The takeaway is that, when writing what you know, you don’t need to use the whole true story. Just the tiniest, most uniquely known parts.
Example of the Exercise
Page 1: Broad Regions of Knowledge
Because of where I was born and raised, I know about life in the south. More specifically, Louisiana.
Page 2: Specific Regions of Knowledge
Within this region, I know a little about many things:
- Bayou country in the south, and Red-Clay River Country upstate
- The class divide in New Orleans
- Rural Cajun and fishing communities along the coast
- Hurricane Katrina history and the experiences of friends and family in the aftermath of the storm
- City history, neighborhoods, aspects of regional identity
- The diverse and omnipresent music scene in New Orleans
Page 3: Unique, Individual Knowledge and Authentic Details
Within this region, here are some specific memories, impressions, knowledge within one or several of these categories. These memories are meant to evoke a specific truth or perspective that I have about these subjects.
- I know the way the red-clay creeks are cluttered with trash at the high-water mark, creating this contrast between the natural beauty and the footprint of rural poverty surrounding it.
- I know that a local bar, Snake and Jake’s Christmas Lounge, is open twenty-four hours, and how the crowds are divided based on what time it is. Day and early evening it’s all locals and hardcore drunks; late night through 4 or 5 a.m., it’s all wealthy college students from Tulane pretending the bar is their little secret.
- I was once stranded in a fishing boat out in the marshes with my father, and a Cajun guy with a dozen empty beer cans in his boat towed us back across the shipping canals to the boat docks. Later, he gutted his fish at the dock, and after this, he shook our hands, rolled a cigarette in his truck, cracked another beer—all without washing his hands—and drove away.
- I remember standing at the streetcar stop and being spat on by the public school kids when the streetcar went by. Later, as a high schooler, I remember spitting on tourists from the streetcar as it passed them by.
Page 4: Mapping the Gaps for Research
This example is from a story I wrote that was set in 2006 in Louisiana, right after Hurricane Katrina. In this story, a man returns to his uncle’s hunting camp in the Pearl River swamp and loses himself there. He is rescued by a trapper, to whom he tells a story about working in the rescue crews in New Orleans during the flood. Here are some gaps in my knowledge that I researched:
- Images of post-Katrina New Orleans (image searches are crucial, even if you have firsthand knowledge of something), and maps of the region (again, even if you know a lot, maps are essential)
- How a trapper builds a figure-four noose trap for small game
- Creole bigfoot legends of the Letiche, or Tainted Keitre
- How alligator hunting works
- The names and images of native plants in the Pearl River swamp
- Names, descriptions, and behaviors of birds native to that swamp
- Testimonials of storm survivors from inside and outside the city
- The logistics of search and rescue operations in the aftermath of Katrina
Free Agent Details
Here are a few examples of free agent details: the tiny, specific truisms that have come from examining my own life and cultivating good habits of listening and journaling. Whether or not they’re actually true in an objective way, these are bits of intimate, personal knowledge or experience that I can put back into my fiction as a way of building a sense of authenticity within my writing. What do you know—specifically and uniquely—that you can use in your stories?
- How my fiancée’s dreams have all but disappeared, and how when she dreams, she dreams of things like emptying the dishwasher.
- How on rainy mornings in fall, the trees around my house are clustered with grackles, cackling and squeaking like a hundred rusty bicycles.
- How a beach glows pale blue on a clear night.
- How I still long for the familiar, slow-motion fingertip kiss of the smoker.
- How a friend who was having an affair once confessed to me that he longed to be caught, that he’d been waiting for the day that his exploits were known, and in the ruin of this humiliation, finally be free.
- The glorious, chemical-rainbow sunsets of the polluted LA skyline.
- How, for the socially isolated and lonely people, there can be this paradox that they can’t be given something they desperately need (confidence, coolness, desirability) unless they appear to already have it — or unless they pretend to already have it.
- How snowfall cloaks the world in a soft hush.
- How a particularly creepy acquaintance of mine talks about girls in the same way a culinary critic might talk about food on television.
- The way that my dad, in his old age, so constantly carries his heart on his sleeve; how everything he encounters is now a revelation, a horror, or a wondrous curiosity; how he becomes an unselfconscious eavesdropper in other people’s lives when we’re in public, leaning in and starting in wonder like a small child.
- The way that places I dread (like my office) seem to bend the entirety of the world around it like a lens.
- The way there is a difference between someone who is decisive and someone who just enjoys making decisions as often as possible.
- How, when I age, what once seemed like a sad compromise has become acceptable, and how I can’t tell whether this is evidence a maturing perspective on life (i.e. that I understand the real world) or whether it’s evidence of me letting myself go (i.e. giving up on my younger hopes and ambitions.)
- Watching my father listen to a song with his eyes closed, caught in a spiritual moment, channeling the piano with his hands dancing on the table.
- How a city sky glows pink at night when rain is coming.
- The sun-lit blizzard that falls from the cottonwood trees when the wind kicks up in summer.
Originally from New Orleans, Gabriel Houck has earned MFAs from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, as well as a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he is a lecturer in the English Department. His first collection, You or a Loved One, won the 2017 Orison Fiction Prize and will be published by Orison Books. His short stories, “The Dot Matrix” and “When the Time Came,” were selected as distinguished stories in the 2017 and 2015 editions of The Best American Short Stories, respectively. Other stories from his collection have won Mid-American Review’s 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, earned second place in the Glimmer Train 2016 New Writer Awards, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and earned finalist honors in StoryQuarterly’s Fiction Prize, among others. Gabriel has received scholarships and fellowships from the Tin House Workshops (2016), the Sewanee Writers Workshop (2017), and the Vermont Studio Center (2018), and his fiction appears in Glimmer Train, The Sewanee Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, New Delta Review, Grist, PANK, Moon City Review, Fourteen Hills, Bayou, Fiction Southeast, Psychopomp, Lunch Ticket, Sequestrum, The Cimarron Review, and The Pinch.