Write what you know

Over a lifetime – since 1963 when I was 14 years old – I have written diaries, poems, plays, an autobiography, biographies, the history of a Masonic lodge, a newspaper column and various blogs (quite apart from voluminous court, testamentary and estate planning documents). You’d think by now I’d have some sense of the recommendation, “Write what you know”. Yet if I have learned anything it has been a slow evolution. There appears to be a natural divide between what we say and what we want to say. I believe the bewilderment arises from a misguided confusion of  “proper” delivery and “authentic “ exposition. The sort of thing you blame on your parents.

The implication behind writing what we know is that whatever it is we’re talking about is likely something that we found engaging or which captured our attention. Herein lies one of the lessons; namely, that whatever engages us has the chance of engaging others.  Nor is this without its merit.  Too often we make an inductive leap to presume that whatever piddling attraction for us is irrelevant to others. We overlook however that familiarity mustn’t be jumbled with mundanity. Beneath that observation is the further worldly truth that predominantly what compels the human mind is an unrefined combination of the visceral and cerebral – and normally very little of the celestial and spiritual. To be absorbing doesn’t mean being above the dirt of humanity, cleansed by the written word.

Grammar, as fond as I am of its ritual, can overwhelm the writing process. As in, “…the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put”. Grammar can be part of that other deceit of propriety. I am not advocating routine crudeness (because seldom does that prompt our behaviour); but in writing what we know we must learn to accept and report the blunt or casual behaviour and thoughts which govern our inner acquaintance. Relating that animal nature found in us all demands a clarity and simplicity not to be distracted or disguised by cumbersome literary rules. This edict translates to writing with a comprehensibility which reflects the directness of thought; avoiding prolonged sentences, hackneyed phrases and awkward words.

By contrast to universal commonality it is helpful to recognize that on occasion the uniqueness of our thoughts or experience is not to be avoided. One’s reading audience may very well be curious to know such intimate or singular details. Once again the governing principle is to write what you know and not to allow the account to be diluted either by social reserve or camouflage. Consider for example the image conveyed in Angela’s Ashes of a poor Irish father relieving his infant child of infection by sucking phlegm from the child’s nose. Disturbingly acute but it keeps one reading.

Against the rustic mantle of simplicity and bluntness there is the urban influence of an author such as Thomas Babington Macaulay. He more than any writer has instructed me. His History of England in particular. Although it would require a month’s vacation to read the entirety at one sitting I cannot think of anything more improving. Whether because of my dyslexia or because of my limited capacity or both, I can only read Macaulay slowly. He has a facility with words which is in my opinion magical; and although I confess he often loses me with his historical accounts, I forever cling to the way he says it. Almost every sentence is a corruption of tedium.

The History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1848) is the full title of the five-volume work by Lord Macaulay (1800–1859) more generally known as The History of England. It covers the 17-year period from 1685 to 1702, encompassing the reign of James II, the Glorious Revolution, the co-regency of William III and Mary II, and up to William III’s death.