Writing Outside Your Life Experience

One of the oldest, most repeated axioms in writing is, “Write what you know.”

There are some definite advantages to taking this vein. Obviously, when we write about things we have experienced we bring our own experiential knowledge to the table, something that increases accuracy and ability to improvise around the truth. We know our hometown better than most places in the world, for example. We know our high school best friend better than a stranger we see on the subway. Our ability to create settings and characters based on what we know is vastly improved, and this helps to create more viable, believable characters and settings.

Sometimes, though, we have to step outside our experience. If we didn’t, horror stories and mysteries would be pretty empty of excitement. Surrealism in literature would (probably) not exist. And great writers like Tolstoy would never write in the point of view of a woman, much less a dog.

The point is, art isn’t about exploring what we already know from the viewpoint we always see it in. It’s about looking at the world in different ways, or imagining other worlds. This involves stepping outside of our life experiences, and there are lots of ways to do this.

World-building is a common one, creating something entirely new. But this is very difficult to do anymore. Most fantasy comes out feeling a bit too much like Middle-Earth, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily new, either. And really, even writers like George R. R. Martin and Tolkien are basing their fantasy worlds off of history or politics that are familiar to them (War of the Roses, anyone?)

We don’t start with a blank slate when we sit down to write, and it’s important to remember our experiences and our studies whenever we try to create. But it’s also important to think about things outside the box.

One of my best friends as a writer is research. Natalie Cannon, for example, is a wealth of information on horses, medieval history, monks, and things of that nature. When I write anything about any of these things, it would be pretty stupid not to ask her many, many questions. Consequently, if you are writing about horses and don’t actually know much about them, I encourage you to check out her blog. She’s doing a series on horses for writers.

Recently, I’ve been working on a story that intersects heavily with drug culture. And in spite of my being a fairly adventurous artistic soul, I’ve never really done drugs. Especially the things this story covers, like LSD and cocaine. My ignorance was so much that until a week or so ago, I didn’t even know how people took LSD, or what exactly the appeal was in cocaine.

So I took advantage of my resources. As someone who went to college, I definitely knew people who did drugs (of many sorts), and people who knew people. I contacted some of these people for questioning, and they gave me all kinds of information: how LSD is taken, what the point of cocaine actually is, what some of their trips were like, etc. One person (a reader of mine, actually), happily told me about a website where I could read about the drug trips of other people with various drugs and drug combinations.

The internet. I’m telling you. You can find anything on here.

So yes, write what you know. But even if it’s something you don’t know, or maybe even can’t know (like exactly how a female might think about something), call in your resources. Interview people who know things, read about things, read about people who know things, and become savvy with the internet.

And when all else fails, as one of my writing teachers, Kevin Moffatt once said, make it up. You’re an artist. You’re not obligated to accuracy. Sometimes a convincing bluff goes a long way.


About jillianavaloncolumbiatheatre

Recent college graduate, writer, aspiring teacher, lover of literature and art.

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