Where Good Writing Comes From

In the 1738 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin advised his readers to “either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” In contemporary writing circles, the adage sometimes gets twisted: “In order to write something worth reading, first, you have to do something worth writing.” That’s nonsense. The kind of thing someone might say to discredit writing altogether, perhaps because they can’t do it well or lack imagination.

Imagination. German folk hero Baron von Münchhausen certainly had that in spades. He was a nobleman who fought in the Russo-Turkish war. After he returned home, he grew a reputation for telling tales on the tall end about his arguably already great exploits of his military career. People started visiting him just to hear his stories, and some sneakily wrote them down and published them. Today, everyone knows Münchhausen as “the man who rode on a cannonball across the battlefield,” a metaphor that has become synonymous with being a notorious liar.

The real Münchhausen never pulled himself out of a swamp by his own hair, fought a forty-foot crocodile, or traveled to the moon. He was mostly upset at his “Baron of Lies” reputation and being turned into a literary caricature. He likely saw himself as a man who “did things worth the writing,” and though his enthusiastic author-friends undoubtedly “wrote things worth reading,” the two were clearly distinct from one another.

One time, feeling the despair of having failed at yet another novel, Steven Pressfield decided to write a screenplay for a prison movie. “I have never been to prison,” he writes in Turning Pro. “I didn’t know the first thing about prison. But I was so desperate that I plunged in, slinging bullshit with both hands and not looking back.” When he was finished, he showed the script to other writers. “More than one tugged me aside and asked in a whisper, ‘Steve, where did you do time?'”

It’s called “creativity” because we are creating. Nowhere does it say that the ingredients of a creation must be preexisting materials. We can mesh the known with the true, sure, but we can just as well mix fact with fiction or fantasy with more fantasy. If real-world accomplishment were a requirement for writing, I’d have little to say and much less to show for. Most of my most popular stories are about other people, and often, those people don’t exist. They’re superheroes, video game characters, and scripted movie roles. George R. R. Martin never rode a dragon, and yet, whenever you read the word “Dracarys,” it still sends chills down your spine.

Good writing comes from boundless imagination and strong empathy. Truth is optional and might, in fact, appear only after we follow a long trail of well-intended lies. Just like Baron von Münchhausen, flying high above the battlefield on a cannonball, looking for the intel he cannot find by traversing the realm of mortals on foot.

You can write things worth reading, and you can do things worth writing. Just remember that, sometimes, the very best trait of those two ideals is that they’re two distinct opportunities to shine.