Writing from (in)Experience

“Writing week” continues on the JMD blog.  Now, read on…

Just a day after I post a blog about not spending any time reading the myriad books dedicated to creative writing, I want to talk today about a piece of advice I once read about writing:  write from experience.

I always assumed this to mean that the best writing is done when the author is most familiar with the subject.  So a parent could write parenting books and a cook could write cookbooks and they would likely be more relevant.

Of course, when it comes to fiction, I think the statement refers more to life experience than practical.  You don’t need to be a “professional” lover to write a love story.  And I doubt you have to be a pirate to write a pirate novel (but I bet it would help if you had actually been on a boat a few times).

I often like to suggest that my life is so uneventful that I am the opposite of that guy on the Dos Equis beer commercials.  It’s a fun part to play, the most uninteresting man in the world, but my reality is likely more towards the norm.  I’ve lived, laughed, loved and longed.  Had some scrapes, had some failures and had some successes.  That’s a wealth of experience…and little experience at all.

I’ve talked about how tough it is to research to write.  Sure, I can look up details about France’s society and geography and law enforcement structure.  And I can (currently) write about it.  But there’s no real experience behind it and that’s where I can see the truth in that original phrase.  For without the experience to flavor it, I feel the writing on that subject will be flat at best and uncomfortable at worst.  It’s part of the reason I decided to minimize that aspect of Book 2.

I really wanted to travel to France to “feel” its culture so I could write about it.  You know, from experience.  Instead, I’m left with “faking it”.  Now, if I’m any kind of decent writer, I should be good enough at “faking” (otherwise called “creative writing”), so you, my loyal readers, don’t even notice the lack of actual Frenchiness (new word alert!).

Similarly, I never had a romance when I was twelve.  Writing about one, especially in a book that evinces a less modern mentality on its main characters, may be difficult to make real.  On the other hand, I think that “first love” feeling is timeless, regardless at what age you conjure up the imagery.

I don’t pick at the obviously contentious examples of not being able to write from experience.  You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to write about space travel.  You don’t need to live in Texas or New Mexico to write about the wild west.  And you don’t need to have six legs to write about being an ant.

Particularly with fiction writing, it’s the quality of the characters, the engagement of their dialog and the compelling nature of the conflicts within that ultimately marks an enjoyable read.

And when you boil it down to that, why, those are subjects in which we have plenty of experience!

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