Shortly after college I read an article about how a hopeful graduate of a creative writing program had sent a manuscript to an editor. The editor responded that, although the writer had followed the technical rules of fiction writing, his prose suffered from a lack of “life experiences.”
Her advice to him and all writers like him was to go out and get some life experiences and then go back and try again. After I read this, my mood nosedived. I had lived my whole life in one small town. I was painfully aware that I had experienced only a narrow slice of what life was or could be.
I wondered what kind of experiences the editor had meant exactly. If an editor was going to make such a glib statement, she should have been more specific. Should I move to another country? Have children? See the Grand Canyon? Join the army? Or what?
The kind of tortured confusion I had after reading the article was the reason I eventually stopped reading magazine articles about writing. I took them personally, and I tended to take seriously anything a professional in the writing industry said.
There seemed to be enough truth in the advice that I had to consider that maybe I was not ready to be a writer yet, even though I had been told throughout my life that I wrote well. Experiences were the stuff writing was made of, so it seemed to follow that the more of them you had, the better your writing was likely to be.
But the editor seemed to have a bias about what kinds of experiences mattered for writing, although she failed to specify them. She did not apparently have the experience of breathing in mind, for example; or going to school for the first time; or tasting ice cream; or getting jealous.
After all, every moment of being alive and aware is an experience: sipping coffee by the fire, getting a crush, watching the rain, stroking the cat, or having a bad cold. Those kinds of experiences were common to most people I knew. Why were they not enough?
Years later I read a book on writing by John Gardner, author of Grendel, that made me feel better. I found a passage where he said that all anyone needs to have experienced to write fiction are the human emotions: fear, sadness, joy, envy, or anger. It was nice to encounter a renowned writer who confirmed that ordinary experiences could be profound.
When I thought about it, most of my life experiences worth writing about were not the kind I “went out and got.” Living with bipolar disorder, grieving over the loss of my grandparents, shedding my belief in God – all of those were experiences that affected me in profound ways. They were not exotic like hang-gliding, spending a year living in Africa, or climbing Everest. But they mattered.
Over time I have had more of those kinds of experiences. For the most part, I did not ask for them; they came to me and forced me into a struggle to understand them. The insights I gained from it found their way into my writing.
Which makes me wonder: are experiences alone enough to give depth to writing, or does it matter how I take in those experiences? If I rush through my vacation, frantically going from one “fun” activity from the next, never appreciating the one I am having but always eager to get to the next point, will that enrich my writing as much as if I slow down in my mind, take in the sounds, scents, and smaller details; observe; wonder; and think about them?
What if I notice not just the thrill of a roller-coaster ride but the kinds of people who ride them with their styles of dress, mannerisms, and the way they respond to the stress of being slowly lifted and then tipped over into a breath-taking drop?
What a writer pays attention to matters, along with the ability to put details into context. The ability to imagine what they might look like from another viewpoint also adds interest to writing.
At the moment I read the comment from the editor, I had not viewed my previous experiences as important because they were not exotic; they were not flashy enough for me to take impressive photographs of them and brag about them to relatives and friends.
I was blind to the strangeness of my own background with all the cultural quirks that those from other countries might find fascinating. What would someone from Afghanistan make of my upbringing in the U.S.? What would those from a liberal state like Oregon think about my conservative home state of South Carolina?
I must admit that living in other states has changed my perspective, allowing me to view the place of my childhood as being far stranger than I ever knew.
But I was a writer even before I moved. Experiences are essential to writing, but they are happening to everyone all the time. Even the deprivation of experience is an experience. Helen Keller, who was deaf, blind, and unable to speak, nonetheless wrote an excellent book about what her life was like coming to her mainly from her sense of touch.
The observation the editor may have had some truth in it, but it was shallow. I suspect that the writer who sent her the manuscript had weaknesses other than a “life experience” deficit.
Thin writing has many possible causes. The offending writer might have had poor insight into the experiences he did have; or he might not have had a strong point of view, or the skill to translate the experiences he had onto the page in vivid detail.
But he had life experience. Every moment experience is unavoidable, which is why even children can write compelling stories, provided that the content matters to them. They do not need to “go out and get life experiences” before beginning to write. No one does.
Writing is a way of life. It is ongoing, and I can only begin at the place in time where I am. The editor was right to think experiences give depth to writing, but she was wrong to assume that they must be “big” to matter.