Write what you know, know what you write

There is an old adage that good writing must be about what you know. It’s been around so long it’s virtually a cliché.

But it’s also true. I posted last week about the methods Ernest Hemingway used to convey authenticity through writing style.  But that wasn’t the only way he gave his work the ‘real feel’. He also wrote about what he knew.

“It’s only a model”. “Shhh!”‘ Photo copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2004, 2012

That’s not to say that authors have to write of exact experiences. Some do – I’m thinking Jack Kerouac. But more usually, experience informs the writing – it becomes abstracted, part of the tapestry. And because that underlying experience is real, it gives the writing a sense of authenticity.

Hemingway was an adventurer, and his inspiration was the hard edge of the human condition. One of his key shaping experiences was the collision between his First World War and his personality – a moment of frisson. He served with the ambulance corps in Italy in 1918, and from that emerged Farewell To Arms. His drive to find ‘real’, to nail the harshness of the human condition, was pushed by that war. Life in post-war Paris lent depth. So did time in Spain.

Hemingway was not alone. A lot of my professional historical work has gone into showing how the First World War changed people – one of my books on the New Zealand experience is being used as a university text, I believe. The war gave the twentieth century its social and political direction – threw a lot of trends into fast-forward. An awful lot of literature came out of the same cauldron.

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

One of the best examples was  J. R.R. Tolkien. Middle Earth – and The Lord Of The Rings – was written from life experience on many levels. His life as a scholar and philologist shows. And he also wrote from his First World War and his experience with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers.

I’ve posted before about how the descriptions Tolkien gave of places such as Mordor, of orc talk and battles, were riffs on the Western Front. The Dead Marshes were an exact description of the Ypres trench evironment, where men fought in stinking swamps amidst corpses.

Tolkien also used that experience conceptually. It emerged, for instance, in his repeated motif of extended life – those without long life were jealous of those whose lives flowed into the future. This was a reflection of front-line soldier attitudes, whose own lives might be measured in seconds, minutes or hours. To them, normal lifespan was an endless future. Tolkien, in short, infused his experiences into his ideas. Even readers who had not lived through the First World War could sense the authenticity. That is one of many reasons why Tolkien’s work struck such a chord.

Experience, then, can become a powerful way of creating depth and reality. Sometimes it can even happen without authors doing it consciously.

Do you find your experiences working their way into your writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


6 thoughts on “Write what you know, know what you write

    1. Absolutely! It’s amazing, too, how much those experiences seem to emerge in writing, whether intended or not. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

  1. Gosh, Matthew…what about science fiction? At some point in writing SF, even the hardest, most science-grounded SF (R. Heinlein’s account of taking a week to calculate orbits for a scene in Space Cadet comes to mind) runs up against the wall of “no one’s seen that or done that and I’m imagining it as reality, nothing more.” I’ll grant you this may be more of a philosophical than a practical point; but I would argue that it points out how one might define that somewhat nebulous border defining what is and what is not possible for a given writer, if not for a given art form.

    Another cliche that might flank the one about “write what you know” is “truth is stranger than fiction.” The Universe is always going to outstrip the imagination of any single human being. I somehow always get the impression that some, if not a majority, of the people who quote that little aphorism do so from a sense of smug superiority; as if any writer’s struggle to wrest something from nothing were foredoomed to pathetic failure. Maybe so. I consider it as a license, rather than a limit. Or, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “Our ideas must be as broad as the Universe to interpret the Universe.”

    It’s not always what you know but how you put together what you know. I’m writing about fighter pilots in World War II, but I’m neither a fighter pilot nor a WW2 vet. Nonetheless, I’ve done some flying, I’ve done a LOT of reading and research, and I’ve talked to a bunch of guys who were there and did that. Put all that together and it isn’t as good as being there yourself…but the point is that at that point, imagination kicks in. Put yourself in the pilot’s seat with every fact and artifice at your disposal, and hopefully the reader will be there on your wing.

    19 days to go!

  2. Yes, I agree SF will absolutely run beyond direct experience. I think you’ve nailed it with your point about the blend – your own experience, plus research into the fictional side, plus imagination – and you’ll have something authentic that will carry your readers. That’s the crux of what I was trying to cover. It’s not about writing solely from reality, but letting that reality inform something more – something exciting, something entertaining. Something that transcends the mundane. But readers will pick up on the infusion of real emotion, the human reality amidst the creativity – as you say, the reader will be there on your wing.

    To me, that’s why Heinlein was so good. He got the mix right – I put him alongside Hemingway when it comes to ‘real’. He was a fantastic writer by any standards, not just SF. One of the greats of the twentieth century.

    There’s a scene in Space Cadet that demonstrates what I am getting at. Do you remember that sequence where Sergeant Hanako demonstrates free-fall inertial dynamics and the difficulties of space-walking to the newbies? Nobody had space-walked in 1947, when Heinlein wrote that. Around 25 years later, Dick Gordon tripped up on the same issues for real with Gemini 9 (I believe he nearly died of heat exhaustion, trying to control his movements – the issue was faulty training). Heinlein knew how conservation of momentum worked, he knew about Newtonian dynamics – and he used that reality to inform his imagination. Wonderful stuff.

    Absolutely all the best for your book! Keep me posted. Very exciting.

  3. I just love your writing method type articles. If I ever write a second book, I feel I will be better able to comment. In my current position I read and think (in this case) “well, my experience IS what I am writing”, so I can’t constructively contribute to the conversation!

    I see exactly what you mean, but I’d need to be writing something other that what I am to actually know to what what degree I was bringing my experience to my work.

    1. Thank you! Experience is all grist to the mill for writers – everything adds to the mix, not just in terms of content but also in the way the content is handled – and that’s true of non-fiction (which I mostly write) as well as fiction. Often it’s quite subtle, and you might well find that in the process of writing directly about your experiences, those same experiences are also informing your writing in other and more subtle ways – styling, structure, and so forth. It’s all good.

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