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Writing Tip: Writing About an Experience You Don’t Have

January 29, 2014

“Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy” –Nikki Giovanni

More writing tips this week! I know we’ve talked about this before and at length, but here’s the basic summary that doesn’t involve me complaining so much.

It’s an old conundrum in the world of writing and editing, writing about an experience that you haven’t experienced yourself. Heck, the whole fantasy genre transforms and transmute natural experiences to the realm of the supernatural and magic. Science fiction throws us into a far flung future full of thrillingly strange technology and imagination, while historical fiction has us flown the opposite direction, facing our past with its convoluted circumnavigations we have since bridged. The problem’s not anything to sneeze at, but in the same moment it’s common enough, and conquerable.

The adage for writers to ‘write what they know’ is very disputed. In the one sense, yes, your stories will always be accurate if you write what you know. However, this is advice is crazily limiting, just as Giovanni says, which is why I more or less ignore it. Only writing what you know means males writers can’t write female characters; whites can’t write people of color; straight can’t write gay; the abled, the disabled; the rich, the poor. And that’s terrible, because authors should have all types in their stories because all types exist and as an author you want to lie so well that everything’s true. Not the mention the potential societal harm perpetuated if you only write from a “dominant” perspective.

So…what should we authors do? As I’ve been writing The Bound Chronicles, I’ve come up with a couple ways. First, and this is really the easiest with the internet now, write with what experiences you have and talk to people to fill the gaps. If you’re writing about a character experiencing XYX, chances are someone else on the planet has, or experienced something similar enough. Social media connections can be very valuable assets as well: places like Tumblr, with its emphasis on sharing everything, LinkedIn with its professional groups, or Yahoo Answers for those more specific queries, can point you to great resources. StoryCorps is a literal archive of American experiences, if you want to delve its depths. With any of these opportunities, take the time to ask questions and really listen.

If you can’t find anyone to talk to, read. Read about other experiences: a blind character gains their sight? Look up the accounts and notes about the first modern European cataract surgery in 1747. See how other authors have described and handled the incident in question: Diana Gabaldon’s description of time travel in Outlander was fantastic and original for me, including both physical sensations and mental topsy turvy. Ask questions and listen some more. No author is a complete island, just as no human is.

If something in the story becomes off kilter, edit it. If you’re worried your story is untrue to the experiences of a certain type of person, have that type read it and ask for suggestions to improve it. Write it up and rewrite it and rewrite it again until you and that person are satisfied.

All of this advice came together for me surrounding the subject of Dubslaine’s sex education. As a reminder, Dubslaine is one of the monklings and by far the most innocent and child-like character of the book: if he was on your team while playing Dirty Minds, your team would win. However, later in the novel, Dubslaine knows about physical intimacy. Editor after editor questioned how he would come to understand sex, and when I provided them some explanations, they didn’t think it was enough. Tired of receiving this feedback, I brainstormed with the Invisible Ninja Cat, who has more perspective on my characters than I do. The result was writing a new scene of Dubslaine observing two other characters having sex. However, then the question was which parts of it would he already understand and which parts would be unfamiliar. Dubslaine is a healer, so he would know anatomy. Weddings and other peoples’ romantic public interactions meant he would understand kissing. For the rest, I asked asexual men on Tumblr about their experiences during puberty.

Aaaaaand that’s all for now! Let me know if you have questions in the comments!

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From → Writing Tips

One Comment
  1. I would like to point out that “Write what you know” isn’t the same as “Write what you are” which is what you’ve described. I’m not defending the adage, but it’s not saying that rich can’t write poor. If a rich person spends time in a poor neighborhood, they’ve got an experience that can lend to “what they know”. A woman who grew up with five or six brothers could be a bit more able to write men then a woman who grew up and never left a convent.

    That being said, you’re right. It’s still limiting, and it’s the writers who take risks that succeed, but even within those risks, people can still infuse “what they know” everywhere. Tolstoy’s a great example of this. He didn’t live all versions of Russian life, but he told all of them convincingly, because he paid attention and infused details he DID know about all over the place. That’s good writing. Period.

    -C

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