On Writing What You Know

I almost missed a good story tonight, because I was turned off that it was about golf. But Robert J. Santa’s “Up and Down in Tycho,” published in the most recent issue of The Martian Wave, is so intimate with golf that it won me over. The main character is playing golf on the moon, basically alone, in a faulty space suit. Here’s a sample:

Parker stopped the cart at the end of the path and walked up to his ball. It was about one foot from the edge of the green and at least fifty to the cup; he had landed on the right most side of the green furthest away from the pin. As he squatted down to check his lie he felt the fabric of his suit stretch across his legs and his back and most importantly across his right arm. He stood immediately and inspected the patch. It was still firm. He double-checked the lie, but this time he stayed standing, backing up from the ball a few meters. There was nothing exceptionally challenging about the putt. He could certainly get it close to the hole and two-putt out for a bogey. The minus one point wouldn’t hurt him that much. He stood before the ball; dialed up his shades one more notch, practiced a few strokes, then stepped forward. Parker’s putter eased back and moved forward very gently making solid contact in the center of the club. The ball slid forward at a perfect pace to be within three feet of the hole, sliding softly left less than a foot, and when it fell into the hole Parker gave a short exhalation of disbelief. He had not actually intended to make the putt and was only keeping the reality of par in the back of his head. The helmet speakers were still vibrating with the sound of the ball rattling in the bottom of the cup as he walked forward to verify the evidence of his eyes. There it was, sitting down there, waiting for him to pick it up and carry it to the eighteenth tee. It was par the hard way: drive into hazard and drop for one with a terrible up and on and a long one-putt. Nevertheless, it was par.

I’m not thrilled by golf. I’ve played it a few times — enough that I’ve got some context for what Parker’s going through. But good detail and a strong voice, I think, can defeat lack of interest every time. I’m reminded of William Zinsser’s excellent book, On Writing Well, which I bought when I was in the depths of misery with my master’s thesis. I remember being incredibly refreshed by what Zinsser had to say about audience:

Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?”

It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer. You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience — every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.

Zinsser goes on to give the example of E.B. White’s “The Hen (An Appreciation).” He says:

There’s a man writing about a subject I have absolutely no interest in. Yet I enjoy this piece thoroughly. … [M]ainly what I like is that this is a man telling me unabashedly about a love affair with poultry that goes back to 1907. It’s written with humanity and warmth, and after three paragraphs I know quite a lot about what sort of man this hen-lover is.

Every aspiring writer has been told at some point, “Write what you know.” As someone who was always attracted to writing fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative stories, I never understood what that meant. But as I read Santa’s story, I thought to myself, “This man is doing nothing if not writing what he knows.” By the end of the story, I was deeply invested in the character and his struggles.

Sitting down and really listening to anyone talk about whatever they happen to know deeply and do well is always interesting and well worth it. It’s the same to read something written in this way. Though Zinsser is discussing nonfiction, Santa’s story is just one example of why all this applies just as much to fiction.

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2 responses to “On Writing What You Know

  1. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. I was almost going to tell that writing good stories needs only courage,but I came to realise that a good journalist or Writer needs to listen more than poiting down your pencil on paper at any time that words out from the speaker.

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