Friday, April 5, 2013

Against Personal Experience

After toiling for years to heed the ridiculous, self-satisfying exhortation of blithe creative writing instructors all over the planet to “write what you know,” I must finally confront that, when it comes to fiction, alas, I am incapable of this.

If you want to write fiction, this is the first rule of thumb to throw away. 

When I began to write seriously in my early twenties, I had not done much living. I was a fanatical daydreamer. And so when something significant happened to me, I tended to recycle it for weeks and months afterward. Meanwhile, not living, I attempted to prove I was a writer by re-visiting this experience that someone had bestowed on me out of pity, kindness or a morbid curiosity. I wasn’t yet capable of going for what I wanted, due to a crippling fear of rejection. Let me rephrase: I was incapable of knowing what I wanted, so I couldn’t begin to go for it. So I just sat back and thought up poetry about my latest, usually too brief, adventure. I thought about it as fictional fodder, while rarely straying from the straight line I had to take to get to and from work each day.

This is not to say how I’m suddenly experienced-up, but I have had uncountable life experience since twenty years ago, experience that puts to shame the efforts I toiled so earnestly over for far too long. This might seem to be me throwing out the baby of my life’s experiences with the bathwater, but the mellowing reflection of age coupled with experience has contributed to my ability to write fiction by giving me the wisdom of discernment. It’s of no service to fiction to become agenda driven.

The stories that have clogged my files for years and that I can’t seem to revisit, and have otherwise given up on, are usually stories that derived from re-imagined experiences. Either someone I knew was the basis for a major character, or I had written the story with some goal of a more glorious outcome. These stories often involved a vague longing to re-right (rewrite?) an episode that embedded itself into my psyche, though it is certain I have long since forgotten why. Perhaps in my avid attachment to the sources, I’ve never been able to remove myself from the material enough to make convincing fiction; these narratives never make the leap in my imagination that would allow them to leap off the page. They never achieve the necessary estrangement which would prevent me from piling the narrative under layers of sub-conscious psychological baggage--which seems unavoidable when I base a story or character on something or someone I know. This taints them for consideration, and I stop short of believing they have any more merit than of personal exorcism.  This is not to say it cannot--or should not--be done, it is just that I find it nearly impossible. I need to trick myself, then trick everyone else. If I can’t pretend I’m not using my own experience, the story is dead in the water.

On the other hand, the material, or the event the story is based on, must have been compelling enough to get me to write and work on it for so long. But this impulse was just inexperience, and being unwilling or unable to try anything else.

File these efforts under Apprentice Work.

Truth is I put a lot of time in on stories like this, and some of them might be passable, even good now. I might be far enough removed from their source material to not be hindered by whatever compelled me to write them initially. I have frequent dark nights of the soul to debate about this. I often think how I have already “wasted” seven or eight years writing this way, but I am guessing it all helped in the long run. So far, for me, writing fiction from my own life is a failed enterprise, mostly. In compiling a story collection to submit to competitions, only two of the stories are loosely based on personal experience.

Almost without exception, the stories I’ve had success with have originated in news events, non-fiction accounts, documentary, or straight up imagination. Whatever their sources, they all end up going through the imagination mill. It is much easier to make things up this way; my imagination is more agile than my recollection or regeneration of past experience. Which highlights another flaw in writing from life. It’s difficult or nearly impossible to break something from a fixed recollection. If it never happened to you, you are free to explore myriad possibilities. By their very nature, stories from life try to contain some experience that is not containable, and thus, the element of freshness and the unusual is probably lacking, having not been discovered in the writing. If I don’t make the discovery in the writing, it is unlikely the reader will, either.


  1. Great post, Robert. As an author of middle grade fantasy, I would be a bit of a bore if I wrote what I know. I think a better statement would be, write what you love. A personal passion must be contained in what you write, but you should give that passion some wings, so the reader can fly.

  2. Jeanne,
    Thanks for reading. In general I don't write genre, but I wholeheartedly agree that you should write what you love. And all the better if writing itself is what you love. Thanks for the comment.