It may seem as if this is take down Hemingway week here at Motive Means Opportunity, but really, it’s more about writers discovering the way that works best for them.
Hemingway was known for his saying “Write what you know about” although it’s usually quoted as write what you know (which is actually attributed to Mark Twain). He also said
that a writer should start with one true sentence. Would that be one true sentence you know about?
These bits of advice might work well if you are Hemingway, and if you have lived his life, or the life of any adventurer. For the rank and file among us, we might not have much material if we limited ourselves to writing what we know. How can we know if something is true if we haven’t lived it? Where does imagination figure into the equation? Surely, research is not a twenty-first century innovation in fiction. We researched before the Internet made it an armchair occupation. Those of us of a certain age are well familiar with Mr. Dewey and his decimal system, and card files, and stacks, and microfiche, and the list goes on. Field research, primary source research, and nagging anyone you knew with certain knowledge or who could provide you with an introduction to someone who had knowledge. All of those options predate pixels on the screen. What was Hemingway talking about?
It’s true that most of Hemingway’s material came from his life. People he knew, experiences he had. He was the big game hunter, the mercenary, the warrior, the angler, the traveler, the two fisted drinker. He ran with the bulls (from the bulls????) in Spain, lived in Key West, and Cuba, in France, and Spain. So, how is the more moderate writer to apply his dictums? Just what did he mean? Was he deliberately trying to discourage writers by culling the competition? Nah. Although I can’t ask him, I’m pretty sure he meant something more metaphysical. And that he meant his two mottos to be used in conjunction.
This is the part where write what you know differs from write what you know about and the Twain confusion becomes a disservice to Hemingway. Write what you know implies firsthand experience. Write what you know about. That’s subtly different and opens the door to imagination. Writers “know” all sorts of things because the writer created them. Our worlds, our characters, and our plots can be products of imagination, and they live and breathe for us, and for our readers, if we do our job well. If we know all about the situations and the actors, we are writing what we know about. What is real for the writer becomes real for the reader. Movie directors have known this before the first talky. “Imagine your dog is dead.” They would tell child actors to bring real tears. The real tears would translate into audience empathy. The line between reality and imagination blurred. The end result, effective.
The writer’s intimate knowledge of the story and characters makes it true. Start with one true sentence. If the opening reveals visceral knowledge on the part of the writer, the sentence is true, even if it’s a product of imagination. The writer captures the reader. The reader enters into a new world and is a partner to the writer. Write what you know about, start with one true sentence.
Have you ever read a book so real that you Googled the story to find out if it was true? Was it?
Thank you, Ernest.