Sunday, September 26, 2021

Learn What You Don't Know and Write That!

by Craig von Buseck @CraigVonBuseck

Many beginning writers have heard a seminar speaker or professor utter the familiar line, "Write what you know." The quote is attributed to Mark Twain—but is it wise? Is it true?

Writers have many opinions on the question.

Hemmingway agreed with Twain.

The great Nora Roberts did not. "You don't write what you know, or you would write one thing. I never understood that. You write what you want to find out."

Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin seems to agree and disagree at the same time: “As for “Write what you know” ... I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation..."

In his famous On Writing Well, William Zinsser takes the middle road: "Writing is thinking on paper, or talking to someone on paper. If you can think clearly, or if you can talk to someone about the things you know and care about, you can write—with confidence and enjoyment."

I tend to agree with short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty who declared: "Write about what you don't know about what you know."

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway‘s memoir about his life as a writer in Paris, he cautions the writer to pull from the well of what is known so as not to lose this valuable resource. "What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all."

Getting to Know Harry T. Burleigh
My take is that you mine your story ideas from what you know. In the process, you quickly realize how much you don’t know about the subject. If you’re going to write an excellent piece, you must take the deep dive to learn what you don’t know and as Welty observes, write about that.

For my first narrative biography, I discovered the story of the great African-American composer, Harry T. Burleigh, by watching a one man play written and performed by my friend, Charles Kennedy—the President of the Harry Burleigh Society—in our hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. Burleigh was an Erie native, but shockingly, I had never heard his remarkable story, despite the fact that there was an elementary school named after him. Charles Kennedy made it part of his life’s work to change this shameful fact.

Inspired by Kennedy’s performance and intrigued by this short sketch of Burleigh’s life, I decided to make him the focus of my master’s thesis. I quickly learned how much I didn’t know about this important figure in American musical and cultural history. I spent the next few years studying the remarkable life of Harry T. Burleigh.

Two astounding discoveries confirmed I was on the right track in pursuing Burleigh’s story. In my research, I came across a National Public Radio news interview with musicologist, Dominique-RenĂ© de Lerma where he made this remarkable statement: “In Harry T. Burleigh, you have the birth of American music.” 

Somewhat dumbfounded, I continued to dig into Burleigh’s life—now with even more zeal.

The importance of Burleigh as a leading historical figure was again reinforced when my father and I visited the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Entering an exhibit called “Great African-American Leaders”, we viewed many of the portraits we expected to see—Martin Luther King, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois, Marian Anderson. Then as we turned a corner, on display next to George Washington Carver was a portrait of Harry T. Burleigh.

I immediately declared to my father, “If Burleigh is good enough to be featured in the Smithsonian, I think I’m on the right path with this book project.”

In 2014, after extensive research, my book, Nobody Knows: The Harry T. Burleigh Story was released by Baker Publishing. 

We decided on the title because so few people know about the important contribution made by Burleigh in arranging and publishing artistic versions of the Spirituals for the general public; in influencing Antonin Dvorak in the writing of his famous Symphony Number 9: From the New World; in traveling for years as the opening act for Booker T. Washington; in being handpicked by J. P. Morgan to be baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Cathedral in Manhattan; in singing for Teddy Roosevelt as governor of New York and for King Edward in London; and in rising from poverty to become one of the most important musicians of his generation.

Almost nobody knows Burleigh’s story. Until I did the research, I didn’t know it. And that is my point. Yes, as a writer, we often begin with what we know, but then we dig in to find out what we don’t know—and that is the stuff that we should write about.

There Ain’t No Rules!
In The Art of the Short Story, Ernest Hemingway observed: “You throw it all away and invent from what you know. I should have said that sooner. That’s all there is to writing.”

As Leo from the Scorpions hissed to Danny Zuko in 'Grease', "The rules are there ain't no rules." As you see from the opinions expressed here, there are many different approaches to writing and many different wells from which to draw your inspiration. Find what works for you and drop your bucket down to fill it.

My friend, Cec Murphy sums it up with this observation: "Write what you know. Write what you want to know more about. Write what you're afraid to write about."

Just get your pen or your typing fingers moving and write!


Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and the Managing Editor for His new books are Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant, a biography of the final two years in Grant’s life, and the companion, Forward! The Leadership Principle of Ulysses S. Grant. Learn more at


  1. I agree with the concept of writing about what you know and don’t know. I’ve been employed doing everything from picking potatoes, to forestry and surveying, to EMS, and world travel for a manufacturing company. Now, if only I could figure out emotions.

  2. Craig,

    Thank you for the wisdom and insight for every writer--including me--ion your article. Our curious nature (like you have written in the past) is one of the keys to drive our writing.

    With Gratitude,


  3. Curiosity and a desire to learn something new have been the motivators of much of my own writing. Sharing what I've learned. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. I write what I know, but I also find out what I don't know, research it and learn as much as I can, so I can write about that. I enjoyed all these takes on that subject.