People tend to overestimate how fascinating their own experiences are to the reader – if you are not careful you can lose the dispassionate quality you need to write well because you become too wrapped up in writing about yourself. It can be done of course – but fiction should be just that, it doesn’t have to be real.
Of course, the basic notion that, if you write what you know, you are less likely to make catastrophic and often comical errors of fact or tone has some basis in reality. But it ignores the fact that most decent writers are capable of doing the research required to fill the gaps in their knowledge which would allow them to write convincingly about a topic.
In the internet age everyone has a huge depth of knowledge a mouse click away and, unless that person is too lazy to live, they don’t need to worry too much about what they don’t know at the outset. That’s before they have even walked down the road to the library.
So you don’t need to be a train driver to write about driving a train. Which is very handy for crime authors in particular who don’t all have to commit mass murder in order to turn out their thrillers. That’s not to say that a deep and immersive experience of some aspect of life might not give you more understanding of it. But a writer’s trade is primarily writing – and research, getting inside a topic, is a crucial part of that.
The ‘write from experience’ advice is often given to kids in school when they are asked to tackle some rudimentary creative writing – I remember being given it as gospel myself. And, if you took it to heart, it would close down so much of your imagination. Fantasy writers would be particularly at a loss, few of them having had personal experience of interacting with orcs and dragons.
So take it with a sack of salt I would say kids.
But, while I’m arguing that personal experience isn’t that much of a big deal for a writer – I simultaneously believe it is very important indeed.
The tension caused by believing these two contradictory things at once is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. And no, I’m not a doctor, I looked it up on Google – works like magic doesn’t it!
The type of experience I think is crucial is life experience. Though we can deftly summon up a dragon or a murder through a combination of imagination and reading around the subject, do you think it would be possible to write convincingly about being in love if you never had been? Or to write about jealously, or rage, or joy?
Emotional authenticity in a book does not come from reading a Wikipedia page it comes through living and the process of getting it down on the page is perhaps what Wordsworth was talking about when he referred to ’emotion recollected in tranquillity.’
It’s not as though you often sit at a word processor thinking – ‘right – let’s describe sexual jealously for this bit’ but you might often have to know how a character feeling that emotion behaves, what they do, what they say or don’t say – and how their behaviour impacts on the world around them.
This emotional intelligence is what you can’t fake and can’t research as a writer I believe, it leaves a gap and that’s where your personal experience floods in.
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.