Writing Lessons

Write What You Know

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By S. C. Gwynne

November 3, 2014


 

So I was sitting around an apartment in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, having some drinks with my friend Mitchell Koss, complaining that no publications were interested in the stories I was proposing. I was a freelancer back then. My first career as an international banker had ended when my wife Katie won $60,000 on the television game show Tic Tac Dough. I quit the bank, and set out to become a journalist, whatever that was. Katie wanted to be a cartoonist. We blew through the money and had a pretty good time. Katie got some cartooning gigs, but I didn’t have much to show for myself.

As it happened, around this time—the early 1980s—the health of the world’s financial systems was threatened by a massive debt crisis. Lots of countries couldn’t pay back their loans. America’s largest banks were technically bankrupt. After five or six beers (or was it nine?), Mitchell says to me, “Look, the world is about to self-destruct and you were a banker out making those loans. Why don’t you write about that?” No, no, I said. It’s too boring, too financial, too personal. I wanted to write about other things. I wanted to be an amalgam of Hunter Thompson, Bob Woodward, and Tom Wolfe. They were not writing stories about banking. “But you know everything about it,” Mitchell persisted.

Half an hour later I lost the argument. I sent two simultaneous queries to Harper’s and Esquire (a no-no in the business, I later learned), asking if they would be interested in the inside scoop on the debt crisis, a personal tale of what went wrong. I received immediate, enthusiastic replies from both. I wrote a piece for Harper’s, “Adventures in the Loan Trade,” which led to a book contract and many freelance articles for well-known publications. It launched my career as a writer. Mitchell’s advice to me came down to that old chestnut: write what you know. Like a lot of writers, I just had trouble seeing that.


S. C. Gwynne is the author of Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanche Indians, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His recent book Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson, also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was shortlisted for the PEN Literary Award for biography.


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