Writing from Experience, or Exploring Something New


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A path I walked at Smoky Mountains National Park

Several friends and I have recently discussed whether writers can and should write outside their experience. For me, becoming someone else, experiencing the world through different ways of perceiving, is what makes writing a joy. But my friends argue that only those who have experienced something can write truly about it, and that the best writing comes from experience.

Ultimately, I feel like every writer is different. Some writers write to discover more about themselves, and their experiences, and how those relate to the world. Other writers write to explore other people, how their minds work, how they experience the world differently. And probably most writers are somewhere in between.

This idea applies to reading as well. Do you read to understand yourself and your experiences better, or others? Do you prefer to read about characters that mirror your own ideologies and cultural backgrounds, or do you prefer characters that are quite different from you? Or somewhere in between?

All readers and writers sift things through their own unique way of perceiving, so in that way, all reading and writing comes from experience, in that our experience dictates our perception. But I do disagree with the idea that categorically writers can only write well and truly about things they’ve experienced.

An example that comes to mind of writing outside experience is Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, an incredibly disturbing novel about necrophilia. Assuming that McCarthy has no experience with necrophilia (it’s safe to assume that, right?), he creates a disturbing, spine-crawlingly necrophiliac character, from his imagination. I can’t imagine the empathy that must’ve gone into creating a character like that. Yes, empathy. To create a person, to write a person, requires sustained empathy, particularly if you’re writing outside your experience. And to read a character like that requires empathy as well, which is what makes that novel such an uncomfortable read.

To shift ideas a little, cultural appropriation can be a possible problem with writing outside of experience. When is it, for lack of a better word, colonizing other people’s lived experience, and when is it creating a diverse cast of characters? I don’t have an answer. I only know I must read and write what comes to me, and make damn sure to do my research.

Here are some other writers’ thoughts on reading or writing what we know versus venturing outside the known. 

 

–Terry Tempest Williams. From Terri Windling’s blog post “Writing from the Center” 

“The writers who touch me, who move me, are the writers who are generous not just with what they know, but also with what they don’t know….It’s that kind of honesty, that generosity of spirit that I ask of writers. And it’s difficult, because you have to be thoughtful, taking nothing for granted, and you have to be willing to risk everything, to write against your instincts.”

 

–Zoe Heller, from the New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?” 

“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.”

 

— Mohsin Hamid, from the same New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?”  

“It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know. But I also write about things I haven’t experienced. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, of a global surveillance system, of a writer who is being beheaded. I write these things because I want to transcend my experiences. I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn’t just my mirror, it’s my astral projection device. I suspect it’s like that for most of us.

In the end, what we know isn’t a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told.

A human self is made up of stories. These stories are rooted partly in experience, and partly in fantasy. The power of fiction lies in its capacity to gaze upon this odd circumstance of our existence, to allow us to play with the conundrum that we are making ourselves up as we go along.”

 

–Jim C. Hines, from his blog post “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other” 

“It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong.”

 

–Malinda Lo, from her blog post “Should white people write about people of color?” 

“This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to blithely write whatever the hell you want about a culture that isn’t yours. Writers who are writing outside of their culture do have to work extra hard to research that culture, because they have much farther to go to get to the kind of instinctual knowledge of it that allows someone to hear my Chinese name and feel that it sounds poetic.”

 

– Jennifer Finney Boylan, from a New York Times article “Bring Moral Imagination Back in Style.” The post is about politics, but seemed relevant anyway. 

“It didn’t occur to me that imagining the humanity of people other than myself was my responsibility. And yet the root cause of so much grief is our failure to do just that.

Edmund Burke called this the “moral imagination,” the idea that our ethics should transcend our own personal experience and embrace the dignity of the human race.”

 

–Jonathan Franzen, from an interview on Slate

“I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”

 

— Beryl Bainbridge, from The Guardian article “On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft”  

“The only reason I wanted to write was to write down my childhood, to write about things I knew, the people I knew . . . I don’t believe anybody makes anything up, there’s no such thing as the imagination. I mean people may say they don’t know where the story came from, but they must do . . . there’s nothing you can make up. In general, you’re recalling memories I think, and that’s the only thing that interested me about writing.”

 

–Mary Robinette Kowal, from her blog post “Bad Writing Advice explained”

Write what you know

  • What people think it means: People think this means that authors should stick to subjects they have personal experience with.
  • What it actually means: When you don’t know a subject, such as what it’s like to live on Mars, you extrapolate from your own personal experience. Never lived on Mars? No. But I have walked in a dusty place and seen the clouds of dust kick up around me. I’ve worn thick winter gloves, and know how hard it is to pick things up. I’ve been far away, without the ability to call home. When I combine what I know, with research, writing what I know can make a story more compelling.”

 

–Neil Gaiman on reading, though I think it also applies to writing. Found on Brain Pickings

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

What do you think?

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