I was listening to an author interview today when the interviewer mentioned that old adage from writing school – write what you know. As far as writing what you know about emotionally this bit of advice sort of makes sense, though it is more often taken far more literally both by would-be writers and their teachers. When taken literally the adage makes little sense.
But this put me in mind of wondering where the saying came from. It turns out to have been attributed to Mark Twain (1835-1910), though there’s no clear evidence that’s the case. I thought I’d do some digging.
The earliest reference I can find that seems relevant is from 1887.
Green had a little crowd around him, and he was holding forth, as is his wont, in a morally funny way, on the subject of honest observation. “Look for yourselves,” said he ; “learn what you can from good books, but study Nature more. Learn directly from her whenever you can, and when you write your composition for the dear Little School-ma’am, write what you know instead of repeating things that you have read in books.
– St. Nicholas (An illustrated magazine for ‘young folks’). Volume 14. Issue 1. Mary Mapes Dodge. Scribner & Company
Now that doesn’t preclude the quote as having originated with Twain. In 1887 Mark Twain would have been in his fifties, so the quote could have originated with him and found its way into a bit of writing advice given in a children’s magazine. Though I rather wonder if this bit of ‘morally funny’ ‘holding forth’ might be a more plausible origin for the quote.
It’s also curious to me that the quote (at least in this early context) seems to be squarely aimed at producing writing that your teacher will approve of. Some things do not ever change…