Write What You (Don’t) Know

Write what you know. Anyone who writes for a living, or even a hobby, has heard this cliche countless times. But is it always the right approach?

I’m pretty sure Adam Johnson, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer in fiction for his novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, would say no.

Johnson spoke last weekend at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, about being a guy from California who wrote about North Korea. He said he first became obsessed with North Korea after assigning the memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang to his fiction writing students.

After reading Aquariums Johnson obsessively researched North Korea for six years — including reading state propaganda, books on policy and politics, more memoirs, spent a notable six months reading about gulags, and meeting with North Korea experts — but still won’t say he’s an expert.

The most knowledgeable people on North Korea, he says, are people who constantly ask questions instead of taking positions of authority. (I found this statement to ring particularly true with my experiences with China experts. The most thoughtful among them admit that they can’t and don’t know everything, but instead try to constantly learn.)

Still, as much as he read, Johnson couldn’t find a the book about North Korea that he wanted to read — one that looked at the everyday lives of North Koreans.

Journalists and nonfiction writers must verify facts, he noted, and it’s almost impossible to verify anything when it comes to North Korea. Fiction offered an avenue to explore the lives of regular people in North Korea, to fill in the blanks where, at this point in time, we cannot verify each and every fact.

Even Barbara Demick’s wonderful Nothing to Envy states in the introduction that she filled in some of the blanks on her own, to imagine a fuller story for the North Korean defectors she was writing about.

Not adhering strictly to the facts would have bothered me about a decade ago. But many stories of people and places are not clear cut or verifiable. And sometimes facts that are verifiable are manipulated. In these cases, writing what you know may not be doing your audience any favors.

So should we only write what we know? I believe we would be missing out on a lot without the combination of in-depth research and imagination of writers who dare to write what they don’t know.

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