ON WRITING

“It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years of writing. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.” Andre Dubus

Monday, 28 May 2012

Write about what you know? Did Hemingway, Joyce, Forster?

This is what I know
Hi my friends!

I know blogging is a bit of a scattergun approach and you may/may not have noticed that I'm keeping my posts down to about one a week. This allows me to write a more considered post and to leave it up long enough for it to be found by you. Welcome! Fewer posts mean I have more time to write my stories, more time to social network and more time to visit you when you leave a comment. Did I forget more time for real life? That's probably the MOST important thing. We bloggers can live in a surreal world, missing out on the beauties of the outdoors (and the outdoors are at their best at this time of year in Australia - a few days from Winter) and 'real' live people which is sort of relevant to my topic today...

A recent novel workshop reminded me of the adage, 'Write What You Know.' I've always disagreed with this advice and have subscribed to the opposite - 'Write About What You Don't Know But Want To Find Out'. A bit like those diagrams we teachers use to assist school students get started with their research for a history project.

At first I was resistant to the idea but decided to give it some thought. Maybe my idea was that the advice meant you must write autobiographally. Further reading showed me that as writers we may not have first-hand knowledge of something but we know a lot intuitively. Hemingway never had a son returning from war, but he was able to write convincingly in his 'Soldier's Home'. Hemingway was no stranger to disillusionment and apathy so he was able to use these emotions and his own first-hand experience as a war correspondent. Oh the pathos:

 By the time Krebs returned to his home town in Oklahoma the greeting of heroes was over. He came back much too late. The men from the town who had been drafted had all been welcomed elaborately on their return. There had been a great deal of hysteria. Now the reaction had set in. People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over. 

Most of us don't see the value in our own lives, but Flannery O'Conner said: '...anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about for a dozen years.' When I did my BLOGGERS WERE CHILDREN TOO! series for the A-Z Challenge, some of the comments were saying they'd like to hear more of my childhood in the wild, free and horsey Queensland bush.

Back to Hemingway who I think is far more interesting than I am. He is one of the mythical figures of literature who believed passionately in the value of violent and intense personal experience. He chose a life revolving around war, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, bullfighting, drinking and so on...It was intense and desperate. So despairing was he that he shot himself. However Hemingway also wrote, drawing directly on his own experience. His 'Nick Adams' stories, for example.

James Joyce lived as an expatriate, yet his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (click to read the ebook) covers his outwardly uneventful youth until he leaves university. What was so endearing about Joyce's Portrait? He experimented with a variety of styles which capture the exact feeling of each period of his youth. His Dubliners is a series of sketches of the city he both loved and hated.

So to wrap up, I'll remind you of the literary giant, E.M. Forster, and his attempt to write about what he didn't know - the lower class - in Howard's End. He tries to show the divide between social classes and how to bridge this chasm. So he included a character from the Working Classes! He had one tentative stab at it in the form of Leonard Bast, insurance clerk. Anyone familiar with this character will recognise that despite his good intentions Forster failed dismally as he concentrated on having Bast 'improve himself' by reading and attending classical concerts. Forster didn't 'know' this type of character and ended up just making poor Leonard a figure of fun.

There is a goldmine of fiction that uses the writer's early life. Here are just a few that come to mind:

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Empire of the Sun - J G Ballard
Indian Camp, The Killers and A Day's Wait - all by Ernest Hemingway, all spare, shocking about a small boy learning the hard way about the ugly facts of life in Thirties America.

A COUPLE OF EXERCISES IN WRITING ABOUT YOUR LIFE

Describe some of the things (you could confine yourself to your own house) which you regard with particular affection, or loathing. Try to avoid telling the reader directly how you feel about them, letting your emotions come through instead in the way you describe the objects.

Minutely describe the sounds you hear going to sleep late at night, or in a fever. Try to capture the sense of drifting into sleep as you describe what you hear.

With thanks to Julian Birkett, Word Power for some of the inspiration for my post and for these exercises.


  • So what do you think? Do you write about what you know, or what you want to find out?
  • Will you try the writing exercises? I often find doing this type of work leaves me with the essence of a short fiction piece.





42 comments:

  1. I agree with you, i only write twice or thrice a month for my blog.. befre when i was so new i wrote so often.. i think a little bit of both, i write on what i know ans what i want to know.

    You always have a nice post!

    Eiroj Stain - Blog Hop Saturday

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    1. Thank you eigroj. I think most of us do a bit of both when it comes to writing. D.

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  2. I'm still definitely in the what you want to know club, although I think you're onto something when you talk about drawing from real emotions. I'll try the exercises, hope I can fully capture the symphony of tunes that collaborate to form hubby's snoring.
    Catch you Wednesday!

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    1. I think it's the emotions that make our stories real so we have to be a bit like method actors I think. The exercises are good! D.

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  3. I have always written what I know, and I don't think that is bad advice for someone who is just starting out. However, in order to grow, I believe it's very important to step outside that comfort zone and write about things that are completely alien to you. :)

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    1. I agree Kyra. I love writing about new things but I still use what I know to inform my writing. D.

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  4. Hi Denise .. I've always written spasmodically. I write about what I want to learn about and/or am interested in .. and have realised that most of my readers are interested in too ...

    This summer I'll probably be writing shorter posts - as there's so much going on in England .. and I'd like to keep a sort of diary of events - whether that will come about remains to be seen - as I'm late starting! However I think I'll keep the same timbre up ..

    I'd like to try some courses later on - but for the moment need to be patient and be with my mother ..

    Cheers Hilary

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  5. I always think I will write what I want to know later, when I've cut my teeth on "writing what I know". But maybe that's just fear talking.

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    1. We need to challenge ourselves and maybe you're ready to step out, wanderer. D.

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  6. I had a boring, normal childhood - I'm sunk! But I did move around a lot and lived in several foreign countries, so that's something.
    I write science fiction in a galaxy far away - really hard to write what I know!

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    1. But I'm sure some of the emotions of Byron resonate with you! D.

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  7. I've been blogging less too because it's important I get my writing done. Thank for this look into the masters. I think it's important to write what you know but not be afraid to write what you don't know. Writers learn so much from writing what they don't know.

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    1. I agree Clarissa. I adore researching for stories. D.

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  8. Write about what you love?

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  9. Ditto what Alex said - I write about magic and supernatural beings, so I've got to make it up! But yes, I draw on emotions from real life experiences to write better scenes, and I do a lot of research on the location I'm writing about so it's as authentic as possible.

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    1. Yes Alexia, no matter how wacky our scenarios or settings, we still need those emotions ringing true. D.

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  10. I make mine up completely but having said that most of the poems I'm writing are zoo poems and I have visited a lot of zoos in a few different countries, so maybe I do know my animals a bit now. I think it's good to experiment.

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    1. Hi Catherine. Of course it is or writing anything would be dull. I sometimes break out into the paranormal for a bit of fun, but still use emotions true to me (whatever that means). D.

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  11. The circumstances may be fictional but our stories will ring true if we tap into the true emotions of our characters. Hemingway said that the readers did not believe our stories but rather they believed our characters in them -- if they could relate and believe in them, then the story would resonate with them. Great post as always, Roland

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    1. Hi Roland. Yes, it's the characters the readers want to see more than our pretty words, which is what Hemingway believed wholeheartedly. D.

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  12. Hi, Denise,

    Yes, I draw from my experiences in life. My second novel has many emotions from my life with a military father. Of course, I played them up for intense drama, but the basics were drawn from them.

    Also my travels and my descriptions are from places I had traveled to. I notice everything and make a mental not so that I can write about them later.

    My short story that you had read was a travelogue of my driving trip to Florida and yes, I did have an affair with a stunning model years ago and think of her often.

    Our lives are filled with wonderful events to draw from. Now don't get me wrong I do ton so research when needed. When I started writing book two of my fantasy series, I researched a small town in France as the home of my MC. I love to research different places and hope to visit them some day. But one must have the emotion to draw from...

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    1. HI Michael! I agree with every point you've made. It's those character emotions that draw the reader every time. Like you, I draw from all my travels.

      D

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  13. At this point, I write mostly about what I know - science and art.

    Thanks so much for visiting, following, and enjoying my art!

    (I'd like to follow back, but I've reached my 300 limit and haven't been able to unfollow. Do you know how to do it?)

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    1. Hi Barbara. Try this link. Has a lot of angst on it but you might be able to make it work. D.

      https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/blogger/sf-l99R5Qfw

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  14. I write about what I either know or have experienced and, in rare cases, about a theme that runs through what others have told me. I recently read that Hemingway's wives complained he was loathe to bathe and totally reeked. Anyway, great writing examples, Denise. BTW, I'd love to know how to unfollow as well as I'm also close to my limit. If you know the answer to the test, could you drop me an e-mail with baby steps? Thanks!

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    1. Hi Kittie. Back from Vermont? You've totally wrecked my Hemingway aura! I've also read that Regency ladies didn't bathe or have good teeth either, lol!

      I'll prepare a little presentation on how to unfollow. It's not really that easy as google doesn't want you to. I didn't know there was a limit? I'm following about 3,000 people I reckon, lol!

      Denise

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  15. I tend to write about what I know right now, but I may branch out at some stage!

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    1. Oh Talli, I'm impressed that you know all those scenarios! Branching out is exciting. D.

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  16. I write a bit of both. I think my characters are so strong because I study people, and I also understand desperation. I've never been an addict/alcoholic, but I understand the draw, and the subtle slip into the life.

    But I also still do a lot of research, for both my women's fiction and fantasy. I like the excuse to learn something new, or different.

    This was a great post Denise. Well thought out. I don't blame you for cutting back to enjoy real life, and to get some writing done. Good luck with it all.

    BTW: loved the RFW e-mail. Two thumbs up :)

    .....dhole

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  17. I tap into my emotions and experiences to create fiction.

    You provided great examples of authors and their works with this post.

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    1. Thanks Maderia. I lived finding examples to use. D.

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  18. Dear Denise,
    I am a man of deep emotions. I definitely write about what I know, which is love. When going back through my posts, I find it incredible that so much of me lives in my poetry. You have given some good advice/tips. hanks for sharing.

    I have a little something for you. To learn more, please click here... See you soon!

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    1. Thanks for featuring me as a special follower Andy. I've been by and grabbed the badge and have proudly displayed it. Yes, you certainly seem to know about luuurrve my man. Keep those excellent poems coming.

      Denise

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  19. over all i would say write about what you know--after all, it is our story and our perspective---other stories are for other people--

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  20. I think writing incorporates both writing what you know and what you want to know or what you can imagine. :)

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  21. Oh? Denise? So we will be looking at some different writings from you after your vacation?

    Nas

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    1. Ha Nas! Yes, I wanted to give Fiji a shout out for this post but decided to keep it for another! Oh, exotic setting here I come! D.

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  22. I'm constantly writing about things I've never experienced personally, but that's part of the challenge ;)

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    1. Yes, I get a real buzz learning about new things then writing about them. Google helps, especially the 'virtual tours' at times. D.

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