The director of Harvard’s creative writing program dissuades his fiction students from being captured in the obviousness of their own experiences. “Don’t write what you know,” he says at the top of every semester. “Writers may enter their stories through literal experience, through the ground floor,” he writes. “But fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.”
This summer the retreat is full of historians and scientists who have an exacting eye for evidence, but I don’t think Johnston’s admonition would fall on deaf ears with them. They are equally insistent that the facts beget something larger. In fact, there’s a case to be made that their work in the lab and the archives is the same ground floor that Johnston describes. Their eyes dart and glow when they talk about what they know. I can see that it illuminates an imaginary space either within it or just beyond it.