WWoW! It's OK to Write what You DON'T Know.
WoW! Writer's Words of Wisdom
Each week, we provide some advice for writers. We aren't experts but we speak from experience and hope it may help another author. This week, my guest Eden Glenn talks about why it's really OK to write what you don't know.
“Write what you know”. The origins of that bit of advice is lost in time. I’ve heard it was Hemingway. I don’t think that is totally accurate.
I received this bit of advice in high school. I didn’t want to write what I knew. It was boring. I wanted to write of dragons flying in the sky and of course how could anyone know what that was like. Over the years I’ve come to a greater understanding of this statement. “Write what you know.”
I’ve become a people watcher. I talk to people. I listen to what they are saying. I talk to people about the things that they know, what they think, what they feel.
George Plimpton interviewed Ernest Hemmingway in 1954 in a café’ in Madrid. I’ve read George Plimpton’s work. He would immerse himself in the lives and occupations he wrote about. What Hemmingway said in that interview is the most intelligent advice I’ve ever heard about being a writer.
“Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen. If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”We have this vast reservoir of knowledge that we collect as we move through life. We can draw on those collective experiences when we write. We know what it feels like to have rain on our face and the experience of various senses. We understand the emotions of fear, love, lothing. We bring all of this onto the page when we write. I’ve come to realize I can write about the thrill of flying, the longing to rise above the rest of the world on dragon wing. I’ve been learning the lesson of “Less is More.”
He continues in the interview.
“The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera. That is done excellently and well by other writers. In writing you are limited by what has already been done satisfactorily. So I have tried to learn to do something else. First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.”Ah, this journey we’ve chosen to be writers. Yes, this is the hard thing to do and I too have worked very hard at it. Somehow I find comfort in knowing that Hemmingway worked hard at the craft as well.
I read “The Old Man and The Sea” forty-three years ago. I’ve never forgotten the profound emotions that story wrenched from me. Hemmingway talked in the interview about the process of writing this story.
“Anyway, to skip how it is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there. I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”Knowing the information and creating a backstory makes our characters three dimensional. Those details make the worlds we develop seem real. The knowledge of the motivations and psychology of our characters make our stories more plausible. Knowing it doesn’t mean we put it all on the page. Yet, the synergy of knowing it closes all the holes and gap.
Hemmingway’s words made me think and feel. I experienced the man’s struggle with him. The original ‘show, don’t tell’. I can feel the cut of the lines in my hands and the salt burning. While Hemmingway never said “Write what you know.” He said something much wiser and more useful.
“From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?”Reference: The Paris Review Interview with Ernest Hemmingway
So... What do you write? Do you write what you know? Or what you dream? Or what you observe?
Eden Glenn lives in the mountains of Chattanooga, Tennessee with a cat and a loveable nuisance dog that should be in Japan. Eden has blue eyes, but her hair color is subject to change without notice. She is a member of RWA (Romance Writers of America) and FCRW (First Coast Romance Writers).
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