Write What You Know?
September 24, 2010 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Who coined, "Write what you know"?

The catchphrase of writers' workshops seems to have no known provenance. Additionally, I've heard that Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, "Write what you don't know," (but that too seems to be a misattribution) and so it seems that whoever said, "Write what you know," was already critiquing an idea that had been set in stone, not trying to get another idea set in stone. Any information about where either "Write what you know" or "Write what you don't know" came from would be appreciated.
posted by outlandishmarxist to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Something at the back of my mind says it was Hemingway but it's likely to be a misattribution...

The TVtropes article on the saying claims he explicitly said his body of work was "...one book about each thing that I know". But that's unsourced, too.
posted by Ted Maul at 8:25 AM on September 24, 2010

My college advisor always attributed "Write what you don't know about what you know" to Eudora Welty. I've always thought "Write what you know" was Hemingway as well.
posted by cirripede at 8:40 AM on September 24, 2010

Don't know who said either. Do know that "write what you know" should be read as encouragement to do research.
posted by philip-random at 9:24 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this is probably unanswerable. Doing the Google searches I'm sure you've already done turns up everyone from John Dewey to Mark Twain...
posted by gerryblog at 9:46 AM on September 24, 2010

In his journals in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
I hold that a wise man will write nothing but that which is known only to himself and that he will not produce his truth until it is imperatively demanded by the exigencies of the conversation which has arrived at that point. So is the shrine and pedestal ready, so he produces his statue and fills the eye.
That 1912 edition of the journals, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes glosses this as "Write What You Know" in the table of contents.

This was well enough known in 1873 for a publication edited byEdward Everett Hale (nephew of orator Edward Everett, who shared the stage with Lincoln at Gettysburg, and great-nephew of Nathan Hale) to cite Emerson on this point thusly:
Indeed if Emerson’s advice had been followed in this volume, “Write what you know,” even the commissioner’s work would probably have occupied much less than 105 pages.
So it's a gloss on Emerson since at least 1873 and the idea that the gloss is based on dates to Emerson's journals in 1855. It's certainly possible there's an earlier source though.
posted by Jahaza at 10:10 AM on September 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

@Jahaza: I feel like you should turn that into a mefi post.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 1:22 PM on September 24, 2010

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