John Irving recently commented on advice to writers often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who purportedly said, “Write what you know.” Irving said that it was “… a horrible limitation to put on the novel or play. Don’t learn anything. Why don’t you just say that?”
|Ernest Hemingway, Writer & Pugilist|
No doubt there would be a great battle of egos if they were contemporaries. Given their love of proving their physical superiority — Hemingway the boxer and Irving the wrestler —might have had to “get ready to rumble!” In this case, I think Hemingway’s advice was right and Irving got it wrong. I doubt Hemingway would suggest writers “stop learning.” Seems to me he was trying to tell writers that they should know what they are talking about. That in no way keeps us from learning more about anything or certainly the subjects we intend to engage — at least to the extent we engage them. Nothing wrong with research.
The other night I watched CSI New York. I gave up on the CSIs some time ago. I tuned in because the promos showed that part of the show took place in San Francisco. I suspect many people are curious to see how the places they live are reflected on screen. In this case, I’m not sure why CSI bothered. They got everything wrong.
|John Irving, Writer & Wrestler|
For starters, there are no cable cars anywhere near Haight Ashbury. Nor is there a corner of Fulton and Page. The two streets run parallel. And of course we have all sorts of young hippies according to the recent episode. The problem is there really aren’t any young hippies. Hippies, bless them, those that remain, are on social security. At the end of the episode, one of the New York characters is invited back to the city by the Bay to continue a romance. She says she’s not sure she fits in with blue skies and suntans. There are blue skies here from time to time and they are especially prized because of their infrequency. But more to the point, you won’t find very many, if any, tanned San Franciscans. In the case of geography, the truth was only a Google map away and with regard to other social and environmental observations, perhaps a brief conversation with someone who lived here might have helped. Next time I try to set a realistic story in New York, I’ll just put some coconut palms and flamingoes along the Hudson River and the corner of Park Avenue and Lexington.
Not only did the show provide false information, it left those of us familiar with the city a reason not to suspend our disbelief with regard to the story. So, I’m with the school of “write what you know.”
I know there is a much larger interpretation to the discussion surrounding “write what you know,” than merely getting the geography right — and certainly you can write about what you imagine. You don’t have to die to write a murder scene is also true. But there is a word, authenticity, that is bandied about now. It’s one of the few trendy words I like. Unless the writer invents a city, he or she should get the street names right. Unless the writer invents a universe or is otherwise playing with such things as gravity or the doors of perception, it seems that knowing the subject matter is a kind of minimal expectation.
It seems to me it is hard to convince a reader or a viewer about anything when you get a lot of it wrong.