“It is what I know”

A new rough sample of what (I hope) will be coming in full later this year:

[An 1811 sneak peek from Capture The Cause. Click to expand.]

“It is what I know”: that sentence from that last paragraph was I felt perfect for this post.

That sample is not writing that I had just invented off the top of my head. It took research in order to learn about some of that. That learning enabled me to come to know enough so as to feel capable of writing it in that “fictional” form.

So when I saw this Twitter thread yesterday, I could not resist it. As is all too predictable on social media, whenever some are given an opportunity to moan or to complain, they rarely miss the chance. And, boy, some writers can sure do both:

[From Twitter.]

A bunch of responses were that the worst writing advice they had ever received was this: “Write what you know.” Here are some I saw:

[From Twitter.]

I have touched before on this “write what you know” advice. However, seeing all of that I wanted to devote a full post to it. I believe it is THAT important.

Because I feel the opposite way: I think it is actually possibly among the BEST writing advice there is.

This I saw in the thread comes the closest evidently to understanding what that advice actually means – yet in being another naysayer obviously missed the point:

[From Twitter.]

However, that tweet mentions that word “research” in its last sentence – and that is VITAL.

First, this is worth addressing. Since fantasy is thought to be “unreal,” some fantasy writers think – as we see in that tweet above, and the fifth response above to the original – that LEARNING somehow does not apply to their writing. Yet even fantasy must have some grounding in reality that a reader grasps; and that reality stems from a shared human experience that is merely reworked into a fantasy platform. (Star Wars would have been very different had there been no The Searchers.) One may be writing about life on another planet, or about ghosts or dragons, or about a fictional group of non-human beings in another “dimension,” but that is what is on the surface, for fantasy writing is a means of addressing human issues through using fantastical creatures and settings to do so.

Therefore LEARNING is bound to matter in fantasy writing, too. Bottom line (to me, anyway): If a fantasy writer thinks “anything goes,” and they need no grounding in human reality – be it race, gender, colonialism, or environmental concerns, etc. – chances are their book is not going to be very good.

The main issue: As we see, lots of people apparently badly misunderstand the “write what you know” advice.

[Ernest Hemingway’s study, Key West, Florida. Photo by me, 2014.]

That statement most likely comes from an Ernest Hemingway 1928 letter in which he writes that he feels his success has come from writing what he knows ABOUT. His view of himself in its proper context is one I think can easily be understood. Moreover it appears so broadly applicable to ANY writer, I do not understand how any writer would argue with it.

Yet while it appears most have heard of it, most have apparently never actually seen the original complete comment. Much as Humphrey Bogart never says “Play it again, Sam,” in Casablanca, Ernest Hemingway did not declare highhandedly that a writer MUST “write what you know.” Unfortunately, that misquote has become the writing axiom.

Here is his original FULL paragraph and the original FULL sentence:

[Ernest Hemingway, 1928. From Selected Letters, 1917-1961.]

That there is not “write what you know” in the way so many appear to think it is. Those who despise the saying seem to conflate “know” with personal experience of something. They feel it means that their imagination is somehow not good enough in writing – that they have to have lived something to be considered “expert” enough to write about it.

What Hemingway is actually stating is what he LEARNS ABOUT is what he KNOWS. That self-believed “robust manly man of action” would doubtless have also said that, for instance, to skydive is a damn GOOD way to learn about skydiving. But the overall point is he felt he needed to LEARN more about that “Tom Jones” type of book and once he does he would then KNOW ABOUT it.

So, yes, it is possible to EXPERIENCE a skydive to LEARN ABOUT and thus KNOW ABOUT skydiving. However, it is IMPOSSIBLE to write a novel of perhaps, uh, an American in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s and actually EXPERIENCE that era – all we can do is LEARN ABOUT it. Thus LEARNING something is NOT necessarily synonymous with LIVING something.

[The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, 1926. Photo by me, 2019.]

If we are able to experience something personally, that’s great, but if we do not or cannot we should at least “look it up” and LEARN ABOUT it through RESEARCH. In short, as Hemingway did, “write what you know… ABOUT”; and my (now late) uncle – whom we jokingly referred to often as “Hemingway” – once said much the same to me. It is reasonable and EXCELLENT advice.

Consider the alternative? How about just “making stuff up as you go along?” Yep, you may do that, but READERS, I believe, can sniff out someone trying to “fake it,” so here is perhaps another piece of writing advice: Do NOT try to fool readers.

Hope you are having a good week. 🙂

One thought on ““It is what I know”

  1. This is a really interesting post. I’ve never been given the advice to write what I know, mostly because I barely write, but I really liked hearing about this, and people’s opinions on it as well.

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