My Archival Wanderings: W. Somerset Maugham

Hi Writers,
Today, I’m sharing–from our world-renowned archives (see my previous posts)–an excerpt from a piece W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage author) wrote entitled “Write About What You Know” from the December 1943 issue of Writer’s Digest.

The fact is that when you write about things you don’t know, you fall into ludicrous errors. Of course, a writer cannot have a firsthand knowledge of everything, but his only safety is to find out everything he can about the subject he proposes to treat. Sometimes he thinks himself to fake things; but to do that with plausibility needs skill and experience, and it isn’t really worth doing, for it is seldom completely convincing; and if the writer cannot convince his readers successfully, then he is done.

Now, the only way I have ever discovered he can do that is to tell the truth, as he sees it, about what he knows; and the point of this statement lies in the words as he sees it. There are no new subjects… but if a writer has personality, he will see the old subjects in a personal way, and that will give them interest. He may try his best to be objective, but his temperament, his attitude toward life, are his own and color his view of things.

So, with all due respect, what do you think? Do you, like W. Somerset Maugham, believe writers should stick to writing what they know?

Keep Writing,

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7 thoughts on “My Archival Wanderings: W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Jeanette Reese

    I think it is important to use guidelines when writing. If I speak about a subject of which I know very little, I am apt to sound, well, uneducated on the topic. I believe a writer has the same risk. It’s one risk I don’t like to take lest I lose the interest of my readers or perhaps irritate a critic.

    Although most of my writing was related to my work, I am currently writing a memoir about caring for a mother with dementia. One of my readers (a physician) recommended explaining a technical term I used in greater depth. Since the book is a memoir, I have avoided digging too deeply into medical terminology, but my reader wanted more. And so, with caution, I will add a bit more.

    In the same way that voice and persona need to be authentic, so should facts or information. How much information is the author’s decision.

  2. Marguerite

    I’ve always believed writers should write about what they know.
    As a teacher we were taught to give children "hands on" experiences before asking them to write. I write poetry for children. So the other day I decided to write a poem about a child spilling a can of marbles. Practicing what I’d always preached, I dug in the closet for my daughter’s old can of marbles. It was all dusty and cob webby. I went in the bathroom to restrict the area where the marbles would fall. I tipped the can upside down and splattered marbles everywhere. Along with falling marbles was a wad of 20 dollar bills! I counted $1000.00 dollars! How did I forget about the $1000.00
    I’d hidden 4 years ago? It happened because I’d put the money there a couple days before my mother passed away. A late night call informed me of her death, and I grabbed a midnight flight halfway across the USA. There were so many family issues to deal with I completely forgot about the money until I did the hands on thing. So, yes! I do believe in having real life knowledge about what I intend to write about. Isn’t true life always stranger than anything we can dream up as writers? A true story from Marguerite

  3. Chris

    There’s wisdom here, if only in the confidence that one has as a writer creating the account that occurs in unfamiliar territory. But I have to agree with RD William’s comments that the Internet and other s

    One caveat: as often comes up with discussions of writing mysteries (my genre): do not believe what you seen on CSI. That’s not the reality. Pick your sources well.

  4. :Donna

    I know that with me, I am spurred to write when I’m inspired by a thought, some idea, whether it comes from my feelings or observations of the world around me, intimate or global.

    I write in all genres, depending upon what the inspiration is, but my focus is on middle grade novels and picture books. My novels are modern day fantasy. I know kids and I know what they like. My personality and interests include, in a very big way, most fantasy stories. That doesn’t mean that, in writing for kids that I know well enough, the subjects included in plotting. There are plotlines in my novels that I know to a degree, but to be completely credible and plausible, I need to learn much more. Regardless of what you’re writing, it needs to be credible and plausible.

    Regardless of whether or not my characters understand something they’re involved in, to me, as the author, I MUST understand it so the characters’ NOT understanding comes across in a credible way, so Kurt, I don’t agree with your approach really. Obviously, if you feel it works, keep doing it, but to me, the author is the "God" of the story. "God" knows all kinds of stuff the characters don’t.

    I think that what Maugham is saying, as far as writing what you know, pertains tothe writer who feels too much like he/she’s faking it, and that’s because they haven’t learned enough about what they’re compelled to write about. If you want to include something in your story you don’t know first hand or well enough, you MUST learn it well enough to serve its purpose and be plausible. A man can’t try to convincingly write from the point of view of a woman giving birth unless he’s witnessed it and interviewed in depth, women who have, and even then, that’s a stretch, but it’s not impossible if the writer is good enough. The truth is, I couldn’t unless I did the same thing because I never went through one stitch of labor when I gave birth to my son.

    What I think Maugham described VERY well is how a writer’s "voice" comes through in his/her writing. When we, as writers, allow what we know and feel and perceive into what we write, we give our stories our "voice". That’s also how we write what we know.

    When I include a subplot about water pollution (which I will be), everything related to it has to be plausible — what toxins polluted it, where it was dumped, how, when, how much of it and how close it would have to be to contaminate something, say well water, etc. all has to be known by me. Do I have to know the recipes for each chemical toxin? Not for what I’m writing, but I do need to know all that other info to make it credible and plausible.
    : Donna

  5. RD Williams

    I think maybe Mr. Maugham’s thoughts need a bit of ‘modernizing’ in these days.

    When writing about a particular subject or idea, you of course want to sound as though you have a passable knowledge of what you are talking about. In 1943 when Maugham’s piece was writen, if you wanted to write about a subject on which you knew little to nothing about, researching it would require time at the local library, searching through books on the subject, maybe several hours or even a few days worth of research time to discover the vernacular for a field, the usage, and make sure that you understood at least enough to talk about it(even if you fudged some details). In this day of almost everyone having highspeed internet, entire TV channels dedicated to learning about a wide variety of topics(ie: TLC, Discovery, History Channel…), it is a much simpilar thing to learn about a new topic.

    For instance, until I read this piece, I admit I knew nothing about W. Somerset Maugham, but after spending 5 mins with Wikipedia, I now would feel comfortable at least mentioning him and his works at least in passing. Imagine if I spent an hour searching through the 492,000 pieces that come up under his name through Google.

    So, "Write what you know", should maybe be updated to "Know what you write".

    RD Williams
    Author of ‘The Lost Gate’

  6. Kurt L. Hanson

    Authors should stick to writing what they know? Hmm …?

    My story allows me the liberty to sound ignorant on certain subjects while I write, and it is perfectly ok to do so. The young adults I write about, and it’s ok if they don’t appear super-smart to any reader on the geological words and subjects used when they speak about "…the glaciers that were once over this part of New York State." So I, the author of these kids words, do not have to be so smart either as I portray them in the story. How cool is that? Eskers and moraines, what’s that? I as the author don’t know either …!

    Worrying about being totally correct and precise is gone, for the most part, as I write.

    To answer the question then, it depends on context.


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