How Important Are Life Experiences to a Fiction Writer?

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Lately, my life seems like one endless whirlwind of activity: caretaking for a mom who suffers from back pain and gout, giving priority to healthy cooking, eating and all sorts of exercise and caring for all sorts of dogs, cats and sometimes other pets for my pet care business. Sadly, lately, fiction writing or even nonfiction (blog) writing has not been one of those activities. It has all taken a back burner, and for someone who identifies herself as a writer, this has been quite frustrating. A computer failure that took place shortly before the pandemic started (and is still not completely resolved) did not help matters. But, I began to contemplate some things that helped me see a silver lining in all of the craziness.

“Write what you know” is oft-quoted advice for writers. Some people might interpret this bit of advice, thinking they are limited to writing stories that are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. I don’t think so. One of the characteristics of a fiction writer is being imaginative, being able to think theoretically and imagine “what if” situations. If we were limited to writing stories strictly based off our experiences, it would make certain entire genres impossible to write such as fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction and period fiction.

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Still, “write what you know” is good advice, and it seems to make sense that the more you know, the better. This could include book knowledge and experiential knowledge. Of course, there will always be things that you haven’t experienced or don’t know and will need to research or gain knowledge of by talking to those who have experienced these things. I remember my mom was reading a book where the main character harvested a potato and, apparently, pulled it up easily from the ground. My mother could tell immediately that the writer was not drawing from experience. Gaining experiences and knowledge, whether firsthand or secondhand, is really valuable to a writer, and this, I suppose, is the silver lining you can see if you are a writer at heart and life experiences seem to be temporarily pulling you from your writing.

Recently, I had an opportunity to speak as an indie author at a Virtual Career Day for Riverdale Public Schools in New Jersey. I spoke to fifth through eighth graders through Google Meet who were interested in writing. I told the students that I was also writing when I was their age and that the one thing that seemed to trip up or cause me to abandon a story was my lack of experience and not knowing how to research what I didn’t know. I then gave them some ideas about researching.

I’ll share some details that I didn’t share with the students. I can remember, as a child, trying to write about summer camp, but I had never been to summer camp. I also tried writing a story about a horse and a dog that were friends and did stunts together. Even now, I have pretty limited experience with horses and wouldn’t feel comfortable writing something where horses were the primary subject. I think, at that time, I may have gone on a couple of horseback rides but was far from being very knowledgeable about horses. I tried writing about a runaway girl, but I had trouble writing about taking public transportation, something I had definitely never done independently. So, you can see, how having an adult perspective and adult experiences expands your ability to write intelligently about more things.

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I enjoy the quote below from one of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis.

It’s an interesting quote to contemplate. I would, of course, list writing as a primary interest, but an interest in writing is not enough to, actually, write. Writing is a skill, an art and a tool of communication, but, subject wise, it is not highly specific. There is really nothing of which can not be written. This might explain why I seemed to have little in common, other than an interest in writing, with my college writers’ group.

At group meetings, you could read a section of your own writing or from a book that you enjoyed. I, at least on some occasions, brought Jane Austen novels. Another writer friend was enthralled with Ray Bradbury and frequently read from him. At least once, one of our members, who was not an arts but a science major, read from one of his science textbooks with a heavy fake German accent, and, for some reason, we all found it hilarious.

I liked writing comedic short stories. Our group’s magazine was titled, “The Book of Ashes,” and I knew that I would or could not publish one of my funny stories in a magazine titled, “The Book of Ashes.” For whatever reason, the group I joined had a high percentage of vegetarians. I was not a vegetarian, but I was up to joining them occasionally at their favorite pizza place for vegetarian pizza. (I remember one had water chestnuts, and it was probably the only pizza I’ve had topped with water chestnuts.) I went to a Baptist college, and the majority of students were Baptist. Although I have always gone to nondenominational churches, my beliefs align with Baptist. This group had an Episcopalian and a Quaker. You can see how our different backgrounds, personalities and interests would color our writing.

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When I reflect on my comedy mystery book, Action Men with Silly Putty, I can see how many of my little interests were worked into it in some way: antiques, art history, food and cooking, coffee, foreign languages, pets and animals, dancing, trivia, diverse curiosities about different music genres and more. Some things were drawn from book knowledge and others from experiences. I wouldn’t say that nothing was ever a challenge, but I didn’t have the same difficulty I had as a child writing stories, because I’ve experienced more, know more and know how to go about learning what I don’t know.

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I know I am not the only writer who has had or has an unrelated day job. For 10 years, I was a journalist. Now, I’m in animal care. I have a writer friend, with several books under her belt, who is an art teacher. Another writer friend, who has published several books the traditional way, went into massage therapy. An artist friend of mine who is a poet as well as an excellent violinist with several CDs and books also sells MONAT beauty products.

I recently picked up a novel from Brian Jacques’ “Redwall” series off my shelf and read this interesting biography from the inside cover, “Born in Liverpool, and raised by the docks, Mr. Jacques, a man of many talents, has lived a life both varied and adventuresome. He has at different times been a sailor, truck driver, longshoreman, comedian, folk singer and radio host, and each of these pursuits has colored his rich tapestry of stories.”

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Interesting, right? So, even though our other pursuits may seem to distract from the act of writing, they can also provide a source of inspiration.

Recently, I’ve had some other thoughts on experiences that were less directly tied to writing. I was sitting recently with three other friends when we reflected on how long we have known each other and how quickly the time has flown. My friend, Adrienne, made the suggestion that, perhaps, time would seem to move slower if we gained some new and interesting experiences instead of the basic routine. She even suggested that she and I travel with our two Asian immigrant friends to the countries of their origin, South Korea and China (specifically Hong Kong.)

The discussion made me contemplate bucket list adventures. I had a tethered hot air balloon ride at Downtown Disney, now called Disney Springs. Adrienne has wanted for some time to go to a balloon festival in southern New Jersey, and a balloon that traveled somewhere rather than just rising and dropping down again, would be a new adventure to me. I tend to look at all things through the lens of a writer, and if experiences are good for me, perhaps I should seek out some adventures.

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It seems to make sense that we can draw from our experiences, without necessarily writing autobiographical stories, and that the more experiences we have and the more varied they are, the more it would help us as fiction writers.

At the same time, I think it would be impossible to personally experience everything you might want to write about. You can use speculation, and you can also draw from a similar but different experience to put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Also, you can interview experts or even your friends or family on their experiences to help you fill in some gaps. I talked to my mother about her broken arm experience in order to write about a character’s broken arm in my first book, And the Violin Cried. I don’t think you want to go as far as to break your own arm just to know how it feels for your writing!

It also seems reasonable that having different life experiences and having varied activities might be more inspirational than staring at a computer screen. What if we never left our office or computer and saw sunlight and friends and did activities? Would we have inspiration?

What are your thoughts? What experiences have inspired you in any art form?