26 August 2001
You'll hear all sorts of gurus say, "Write what you know!" But suppose your life has
been fairly placid--you've lived in some small town, done nothing that won you fame
or notoriety, always existed as part of the mainstream. Does that mean you have
nothing to write about? Absolutely not!
In August, 2001, one of the thriller writers in my writing group unleashed a rant in
which he said, basically, that no one could write decent fiction who hadn't lived a life
of adventure. He took a particularly strong cut at academics, who, he said, write
dull, inconsequential stories and novels that get good reviews from other boring
academics and then disappear into the dusty library stacks.
Being your more or less typical suburban matron, whose main "adventures" have
been things like winning (and losing) in various track and field events, having babies,
and doing several other fairly mundane things, I took umbrage at this, but before I
could issue the requisite return blast, a fine Canadian writer did the job better than
I would have, and has generously agreed to let me post his answer to that calumny
On Life Experience and Fiction Writing: A Rejoinder
© 2002 Alan Girling
by Alan Girling
Sorry, . . . , no bravo from me. I think you've somehow bought into the 'Hemingway
myth' of the writer as necessarily a man (woman?) of action, or the Kipling, the
Conrad, the Orwell, the Kerouac myth, whatever you want to say (the Clancy
myth? the . . . . ?).
So what is 'experience of life' anyway? Looks to me that for you it's something you'd
find in a high-tech thriller like your own or, say, a Martin Scorsese film. Hmm. If
that's life, it excludes 93% of the people in the world. Really, it simply reflects the
kind of 'material' that some, no many, people (primarily, men, I'd venture) like to
read about: high-stakes risk taking, life and death drama, shoot-em-ups, s(t)eamy
sex. In short: Action, as in the Genre, as in a specific form with specific
requirements for material and handling of the material. This is narrow, not fiction
writing in the wide sense. (I guess your post just another salvo in the never ending
'battle' between 'genre' and 'literary'. I must say I'm tired of it, but back to work)
In my opinion, no one lacks 'experience of life', even poor academics, such easy
targets as they are, being such 'snobs'. People, writers, that is, often don't know
what to do with it, and I believe you're right about many academics losing their way
as writers, but even they have real 'experience of life' that can be transformed into
meaningful fiction. Some well known writer, I forget who, said if you survived
childhood you have enough material to write a novel, or two or three ... Makes sense
to me. Go to any 'academic' (who, by the way, are generally not the introverted,
nerdy, no life ivory tower stereotypes you seem to believe they are) and find out
really what 'experience' he/she's had in life. Let's see, because they are people, I can
make a list on a basis of probability: in no particular order 1. death of a loved one 2.
fulfillment of a romantic relationship. 3. breakup of a romantic relationship 4.
success in a chosen activity or field. 5. failure in a chosen activity or field. 6. puberty.
7. the political realities of the workplace. 8. friendship 9 some form of domestic
abuse/family dysfunction 10. some form of 'abnormal' sexual desire 11. the gamut of
emotions considered 'sins': envy, greed, gluttony, pride, ambition, the urge to kill,
and their opposites. 12. religious questioning or crisis. Naturally I could go on. (But
do you really think none of this can result in knowledge of 'dramatic capability'? If
you do, then, as I say, you have a particularly narrow view of the purpose of writing
All of it is great material for fiction. A lot of it may not fit the genre that is obviously
your taste, but that's no reason to condemn forms of fiction that deal with such
'mundane' realities. (you'd probably say you aren't condemning them, but with your
criteria for dramatic capability, you are) And there's absolutely no reason why such
source material has to result in 'arid, sterile, academic, experimental shit'. Sure, be a
whore, be a cop, be a dealer, do all the in-your-face
obnoxious/heroic/extra-ordinary activities of human beings (I'd actually prefer
people to be just dull, the world would be a better place), and write about it.
Alternatively, grow up, have a brother, make a friend, fall in love, lose your
virginity, get a job at a grocery store etc. -- and write about that. Material is
material. It's what you do with it that makes the difference. If the writing is bad,
it's usually a result of lack of imagination, and that can afflict anyone, no matter
what their life experience or particular way of making a living.
Anyway, with a little research, I could make a big long list of well-known writers
who by your standard have had no life whatsoever (Let's start with Austen and
Kafka), and yet produced compelling fiction that has not been filed away in the
dusty shelves of the university library. I don't challenge your judgement of what
you've read, you're entitled to it, just your theory of why it might be so.
You may write to Alan at email@example.com.