At a writing workshop I attended recently, the instructor set us working with the task of writing something excruciatingly personal. “We write best when we’re writing things that are truly meaningful for us,” she said.

The claim took me aback—I’ll admit I spent more of my workshop time pondering it than I did writing. It’s not a new idea: a million aspiring novelists have been counseled “Write what you know.” But does spilling our hearts’ blood on the page really make for good writing? How about this: go grade a class’ worth of Comp 101 essays or read a few dozen lightly fictionalized childhood sexual abuse memoirs, then let me know what you think.

The essence of superlative fiction writing is a paradox: to present a narrative that is, trivially, untrue in a way that resonates with the reader as truth, or even Truth. The corollary of the old saw “Truth is stranger than fiction” is “Fiction is truer than truth.” It gets there by abstracting away from the befuddling specifics of human experience. A well-tuned fictional narrative can build common ground with the reader in a way that inflexible, incomprehensible reality can’t.

The strength of fiction is that its narrative has structure. The kind of clean, comprehensible, meaningful structure that the human mind struggles to impose on reality. In fiction, everything means something. If you let yourself be bound by what actually happened, you risk letting in the kind of true, but uninterpretable, details that throw your story off track.

We need to know that thing that your ostensible best friend said to you in junior high in order to understand the significance of the scene on the bus? You’re down a rabbit hole. Start over. This time, make something up.

What of the admonition to “write what you know”? On one level, it’s good advice. Don’t set your novel in 14th century Venice when 21st century Boise will do. And, of course, not everyone is drop-dead gorgeous, Celtic, or a spy. But when you take on the task of writing your most pivotal personal moment, you’re taking on the task of making the reader understand why it’s pivotal. And with material that’s so intimately woven into your innermost self, it can be well-nigh impossible to take the objective view you need in order to judge whether you’re getting it right.