Writing From Experience
‘Write what you know’ is an adage that most writers will have heard of, and while it’s certainly true that what a writers knows makes a solid foundation for their writing, it’s not an entirely accurate, because much of what is written is all about what we don’t actually know.
That’s why it requires great creativity and imagination.
Writing from experience isn’t about a writer being autobiographical – fiction isn’t about that and should never be about the writer, nor should it project the writer’s feelings or opinions. Instead it’s about the stuff the writer knows, which could be used in their work.
That’s why writing from experience does have an advantage. A lot of our writing is generated from stuff we remember or things we’ve done. That means our writing is a balance between what we imagine and snippets of things we know or we have experienced. That could be anything from having knowledge of a certain skill, an expertise in a certain field, experience from a particular job, memories from a certain time in life – good or bad – memories of things we’ve seen or heard and observations of the world around us.
Readers won’t know that the main character is able to rewire a house because the writer used to be an electrician. Or that a writer can write knowledgeably about certain medical procedures because he or she works as a nurse. The reader won’t know that the writer may have experienced something traumatic in childhood, and so is able to put all those emotions behind their writing and the characters.
Emotions are probably the one thing we all share, which is why readers are drawn to them. The honesty that comes with raw emotion is something the reader will understand and empathise with, because they may have shared the same thing. Emotion will always connect the author to the reader.
Writing from experience should also help the author provide effective descriptions. For example, one of the most violent thunderstorms recently occurred in the UK. As a well-travelled writer, I’ve seen my fair share of amazing storms from around the world, but this one was like no other. It lasted 24 hours, the lightning was non-stop and local areas became flooded.
I love thunderstorms, so I stood in my back doorway and listened to a crack of thunder that didn’t actually stop. Not for a second. It just continued - a constant rumble for several hours. In my imagination, however, the sound, accompanied by the churning grey-pink sky, seemed apocalyptic. But it created a memory; the sounds and images fused in my mind. Now I can use the memory of those amazing elements in my writing to help give descriptions perspective and a hint of realism.
In a nutshell, what we see and hear plays an important role in our writing – observation often gives depth and meaning to descriptions. Personal experience establishes an emotional connection with the reader. The ability to translate what we know or what we have felt, to the reader – rather than preaching to them – is the difference between a great story and a mediocre one.
Real life is often more interesting than the fictional stories we create, and that’s because we have to make the stories interesting with all manner of made up stuff, embellished with a dollop of real life experiences and emotions thrown in for good measure.
Our job as writers is to make our stories as real as possible and we do that by writing about things we know; just as much as the things we don’t.
Next week: Turning Short Stories into Novels.