Drawing from your life experience

Write what you know. That phrase comes up time and time again in creative writing tutorials. For many years I dismissed this piece of advice, not through disrespect but because the story ideas I had required me to write about things I didn't know. I didn't know about living in a Tolkien-esque world. I didn't know about fighting in a battle. I certainly didn't know about grieving the death of a loved one.

In my early twenties, I attended a writing class run by a very talented poet called Pat Borthwick. Pat placed great value on life experience and encouraged us to use our memories and every day lives to enrich our writing.

Most of my class members were older than me and it seemed at the time that they had so much more 'life' to write from compared to my own twenty or so years. There was a wonderful American lady in her sixties or seventies who had lived in Burma for many years. If I remember rightly, her husband was a diplomat connected with the American Embassy. Each week she brought with her a flask of coke and some alcoholic beverage, and a wealth of stories about her life in Burma. I particularly remember a story about the crow's court who sat in attendance in the tree at the bottom of her garden. Another lady of similar age who had lived her whole life in the local area provided tales that were equally as interesting and full of warmth and rich memories. She wrote of her children (now grown up), the death of her parents and trips to the sea. A third group member, a quietly spoken man in his forties wrote with a grace and eloquence that matched his distinguished voice but his stories were also saturated with feelings of bitterness towards his ex wife.

A decade passed and my life experience changed. I now knew how it felt to have my heart broken. I knew the pain of seeing someone I loved die. I was also more independent and self sufficient, having lived in bedsit land in a big city. I was dating a man called Tony, ten years older than me, divorced, father to seven children (yes, seven) and an ex fireman. He was a writer too. We critiqued each other's work. He dismissed my writing as naive. I saw his as depressing. We were each drawing from our own lives which were very different. We didn't last.

It's only in the now, another decade later, that I've come to appreciate  what 'write what you know' really means. It isn't a limiting, stoic instruction designed to keep us in our place. Instead, it's a suggestion to base your story in the reality of what you have lived through, to make your characters as real as the individuals that you meet every day. I can explain this by looking at one of the characters in my novel. Isabella may have magical skills and live in a future world where trees are only a memory, but I based her experience as a mother on my life with my children. We have both lost our parents and at times in my life I have been as motivated by fear as she is. Her character is shaped by my life, by what I know.

Each and every one of us, however old or young we are, has a wealth of experience to write from. We all carry the richness of our reality, a reality which can form a solid foundation for our writing.


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