Experience: A Necessity? (Or, writing and having a life 2.0):

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I'm raising the subject again with the mods' blessing: the last discussion we had had on the topic brought about some interesting points, and hopefully challenged some of the ways in which we see fiction, and generally seemed too fruitful to discontinue because of the argumentative course the thread took. So, without further ado, I'd like to know how necessary to the process of writing you view first-hand experience.

Many had brought up points about realism being upheld best by an intimate knowledge of the subject the writer is covering. My main issue, personally, is that I'm not actually interested in fiction that wants to tell me something everyone already knows, such as what a snowy night looks like, or what goes where when two people have sex. Nor am I particularly interested in bathetic musings a là Twilight's Bella that are geared towards milking a specific emotion out of the reader rather than allowing him or her to come to their own conclusion and nurture their own sentimental responses. My favorite kind of narration is unadorned and introspective, following mundane people who go about their ordinary days but remarking on these with oblique, idiosyncratic insights - such as that of Coetzee's Magistrate, or Roy's narrator in The God of Small Things. And that kind of narration, I suspect, comes only from actually living through turbulent times, not simply reading about them.

That being said, the worth one can derive from these original insights surely speaks to the ability of language to inform and influence even in the absence of direct experience, but the question remains whether this vicarious sensation is enough, in and of itself, to provide a writer with the novel perspective needed for worthwhile storytelling.

Thoughts?

edited 13th Sep '11 11:16:20 PM by kashchei

And better than thy stroke; why swellest thou then?
2 Night13th Sep 2011 11:22:00 PM from PSNS Intrepid , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Bring it on! I'm right here!
...I think it might be best to dumb it down a bit for us. (Or is that part in the middle a digression? I can't tell.)

If you are saying what I think you are saying; direct experience of an action or event is not necessary, I think. Direct experience of an emotion or a more complex motivation is more...hazy. I think you can work yourself into it via parallels and sufficient imagination, but at the same time I am aware there are limits to my ability to do so.

I will never write a rape, not because I object to it being written, but because I cannot simulate the state of mind in which it seems like something to be done and thus have no idea where and when it should occur (if it should at all). There are characters running about in my works where I can describe and even predict their actions, but why this truly all seems like a good idea to them is lost to me.

edited 13th Sep '11 11:23:50 PM by Night

Trusted Poster of Legitimate Advice (from Wo-Chan)
Yep, direct experience of an emotion is indeed what I am getting at, but with the very important corollary that such emotions can only be triggered by direct experiences (though they need not be exact cognates of the situations you end up describing). However, and especially in the cases of more banal events, the direct experience does help (and, indeed, many times inspires) to shape one's perspective and one's subsequent retelling of it. If this is still too nebulous, one example would be that having sex, say, in public will awaken in you new understandings of lust, voyeurism, passion, and so on; and that, in considering these new perspectives, you might be compelled to share them with others and find that the only adequate way to express your unique experience is through heavily stylized metaphor.
And better than thy stroke; why swellest thou then?
4 Madrugada14th Sep 2011 07:38:13 AM , Relationship Status: In season
Zzzzzzzzzz
I don't think that direct personal experience is always necessary. I do believe that direct personal experience of something that is comparable, related, or roughly equivalent will virtually always affect the writing. Whether that effect is a net positive or a net negative for the work depends on how accurately the writer extrapolates from the experience (s)he had to the experience (s)he didn't have but is writing about.

I also believe from my reading experience, that lack of personal experience by the writer is more likely to be jarringly noticeable to a reader who has had that experience or a comparable one, than the writer using an experience is to be noticeable to the reader who hasn't.

{Did that make any sense? I don't think I was very clear.}

...if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you for it.
I do not imagine first-hand experience is a must, though the more you can ascertain about something you write about, the better. They say you can feel from imagined experiences, that the nervous system doesn't distinguish between reality and the imagination. How else do you think you still fear the phobia of rats (even hearing their squeaks) just by thinking an image/sound. How else was Gaspar Noe able to visualize the drug-addled afterlife of the mind in Enter the Void?

Perhaps as Madrugada said, you do can extrapolate experiences from several different events - the scrape of the knee, if you've been punched in the face, exerting yourself in exercise, the fear before public speech, and reading agonising tales from print, etc. - and composite those into what it's like for a street fight.

(Otherwise, the things like outlandish fantasy and SF could not be appreciated.)

edited 14th Sep '11 8:26:23 AM by QQQQQ

6 KillerClowns14th Sep 2011 09:30:29 AM from the Midwest , Relationship Status: Healthy, deeply-felt respect for this here Shotgun
is taken by a fey mood!
As many others have said, I agree: it is more important to have experienced, at least in some manner, the emotions you are trying to write. The events themselves are helpful but not strictly necessary. As an example, writing what it's like to die is, quite obviously, not a possibility for most people. But writing the fear of the unknown, perhaps combined with a vague hope of something better awaiting past it, is something everyone who has ever graduated from school/college and thought, "wait, what the fuck do I do now?" can do. The trick is merely to extrapolate outwards, increasing the finality and thus the intensity of the emotions involved.

But that isn't to say living a hermit-like life is advisable. There are simply too many experiences out there that most fiction rarely covers, that can make your own work feel truly original if you go out there and let them fall upon. The best ones usually find you as a side effect of going outside and daring to experience new things. Tropes are born from the real world: if you seek new ones, or even obscure ones, it is there you shall find them.

edited 14th Sep '11 9:30:59 AM by KillerClowns

7 MrAHR14th Sep 2011 10:49:43 AM from ಠ_ಠ , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Ahr river
For the more technical things, I think you should at least go to a museum, or try and operate a simulation or something.

I can look up stuff about guns until the cows come home, but that doesn't mean I'll be able to write about one.

I learned more about music in one basic guitar class for a semester, than I ever did trying to read about such a thing.
Element of love
yes you need to experience in order to portray something. But the good news is that you most likely already have (regarding feelings).
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. C. S. Lewis
9 66Scorpio22nd Sep 2011 06:29:27 PM from Toronto, Canada
Banned, selectively
One rule of writing is "write what you know". However, the entire premise of being a writer is that you are better at writing than the people with that first hand experience. Research is the key, and I don't mean scouring the internet or library but rather talking to people who do have that first person perspective. Alternatively, you can talk to professionals in the field who have copious second hand perspectives. From that you can express ideas or stories. It is always a good idea to run your stories and ideas back past the people who are in the know to get further feedback in preparation for the re-write.
Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you are probably right.
10 feotakahari23rd Sep 2011 04:06:48 PM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
Even if you haven't had experience of something, it's worth talking to someone who has. I often find that academic tomes fail to answer the specific questions I have regarding something. (These forums have been useful to me for finding people who know about subjects I know little about.)
That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
"However, the entire premise of being a writer is that you are better at writing than the people with that first hand experience."

Where do you get this idea? And why are you assuming that writers aren't writing from first-hand experience?
And better than thy stroke; why swellest thou then?
12 Night24th Sep 2011 05:00:56 PM from PSNS Intrepid , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Bring it on! I'm right here!
Honestly I'd be curious how someone could sustain the belief that a majority of writers write from first-hand experience, between the majority of the mystery genre, the decidedly sketchy grasp of real romance shown in romance novels, speculative fiction describing things for which there is no first-hand experience to be had, and history.
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13 nrjxll24th Sep 2011 05:02:10 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
I believe the issue is more whether writers should write from first-hand experience - judging by your remarks on romance novels, even you seem to support that to some extent.
14 Night24th Sep 2011 05:03:52 PM from PSNS Intrepid , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Bring it on! I'm right here!
I'm not sure I do, particularly in that case. They're describing an idealized experience, one nobody will ever actually have, and that's probably better for that purpose.

edited 24th Sep '11 5:04:48 PM by Night

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15 chihuahua024th Sep 2011 05:11:35 PM from Standoff, USA , Relationship Status: I LOVE THIS DOCTOR!
Writer's Welcome Wagon
Considering how much I been drawing from emotions and my personality lately, experience can be useful.

16 MrAHR24th Sep 2011 05:39:34 PM from ಠ_ಠ , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Ahr river
I know that Stephen King writes largely based on experiences, JKR's mother's death affected how she wrote the death of Harry's parents, and she also based characters like Snape and Gilderoy off of real people she knew, and even said that Ron had turned into her brother, unknowingly.

Lovecraft wrote great horrors on sea creatures, whilst being afraid of the very real ones.

Tolkien is an example of not having experience— but he's also someone INCREDIBLY dedicated to his trade. And it shows in stuff that doesn't involve world building. His story telling ability...is not the best.

Asimov had no experience with women, and when writing them, frequently wrote them based on his mother in law. Which is why a lot of them are shrews.

Roald Dahl suffered through many abusive schools, which shows in his works.

George Orwell witnessed plenty of influences (Spanish war, WW2) to write his political works.

So...yeah.
What about experiences you get from watching and reading other works? From TV and movies and such? Can they influence like the above?

edited 24th Sep '11 7:17:35 PM by QQQQQ

18 MrAHR24th Sep 2011 07:22:50 PM from ಠ_ಠ , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Ahr river
I think they can influence, but they also have the added bonus of influence in terms of writing.

A story will influence you thematically, in characterization, in writing techniques, etc. etc.

While there is also the hard plot that can be influenced, a lot of times, it turns into blind copying (you can see this in trends in fanfiction, when certain things get really popular, or commonly used.)

Of course, more positively, it can spark inspiration, which is more...vagueish.

edited 24th Sep '11 7:25:08 PM by MrAHR

19 66Scorpio24th Sep 2011 10:57:06 PM from Toronto, Canada
Banned, selectively
""However, the entire premise of being a writer is that you are better at writing than the people with that first hand experience." Where do you get this idea? And why are you assuming that writers aren't writing from first-hand experience?"

There is no point in calling yourself a writer if you suck at writing.

I assume that writers do not draw directly on first hand experience for the vast majority of their topics in science fiction, fantasy, action, romance and such. Certainly, they draw on elements, events and people. If you want to write about combat in the 25th century, it's probably a good idea to talk to a 20th or 21st century combat veteran if you have never spent a day in the service yourself.
Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you are probably right.
"There is no point in calling yourself a writer if you suck at writing."

How does that relate to my question?
And better than thy stroke; why swellest thou then?
21 Night26th Sep 2011 09:17:36 PM from PSNS Intrepid , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Bring it on! I'm right here!
The average writer can sit down and write better than the average non-writer, basically. This is why writing can be considered a trade: a writer is a specialist, more capable in their field than a layman.

With that assertion it becomes obvious that a writer brings something more to the table than first-hand experience of what they're writing about. This something that makes them better-suited to communicating ideas within their medium than someone who has first-hand experience but no skill or experience at writing.

So yes, it's quite on-point.

edited 26th Sep '11 9:19:13 PM by Night

Trusted Poster of Legitimate Advice (from Wo-Chan)
I don't buy that; first and foremost, because I don't buy that people who call themselves writers are necessarily more adept at telling a story, conveying information, or sounding good. Secondly, you are still imagining a division between people who write and people who experience when the two are not mutually exclusive and when this division is patently unfounded. Look up George Orwell or Wilfred Owen, for starters.
And better than thy stroke; why swellest thou then?
23 Madrugada26th Sep 2011 11:20:49 PM , Relationship Status: In season
Zzzzzzzzzz
A writer is someone who writes. Whether they're any good at it or not is irrelevant to whether they're a writer. It is relevant in whether they're a good writer or not.
...if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you for it.
24 OriDoodle27th Sep 2011 10:48:59 AM from Practicing Arpeggios , Relationship Status: We finish each other's sandwiches
Thread-hopper. I've read a bit of the discussion.

I think some experiences are necessary to write effectively. AHR brought up a good point when she mentioned guns. Many people who try to write about guns will only have read about them—never having shot one themselves. This is a shame considering the many opportunities available (in America at least) to have the safe experience of firing a gun. Guns, for one thing, are much, much louder than you'd think they'd be. They are heavier too, and take a lot more concentration to shoot correctly.

A first or even third-time shooter is not likely to calmly aim and fire. The noise would startle them. All this to say, you never hear about that kind of experience in books, and you don't get that kind of experience in video games or even simulations. I only learned it when I shot a few guns at a firing range.

Then again, some things don't need to be experienced to be written about. I am using an extreme example here, but I highly doubt that any author who has ever written about killing someone has actually had that first hand experience, or even interviewed someone who has. We don't really know if what they write is realistic, because we are very unlikely to also have that experience. And that's what makes it OK. If we think it seems realistic enough, we readers won't question it.

To finish up this very long post I'll say this. I held off on a few good story ideas until I was older, because some of the plot-lines dealt with things I knew, as a 13 year old, I would have no way of writing effectively. Things like having children, being in love or married, holding down a full-time or even part-time job. Those stories need the real-world experience to hold any weight or have any kind of grounding in reality.

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25 Night27th Sep 2011 12:16:55 PM from PSNS Intrepid , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Bring it on! I'm right here!
@kashchei: You are imagining the lack of division. We've made numerous assertions of cases where writers clearly don't have firsthand experience. Even bringing up Orwell does your argument no good; yes he had plenty of experiences, but he did not have the actual experience of living in the world he portrayed. He had to synthesize, extrapolate, create.

You and Mad are also inventing an argument about how everyone who writes is a writer. Nobody made this assertion. Both I and Scorpio quite deliberately invoked skill and practice in the craft of writing. We don't care who chooses to call themselves a writer, as that has absolutely no bearing on their ability.

Writing is a skill. It can be developed like other skills, by practice. It can be enhanced, like other skills, by thorough consideration of how it is applied. Objections to the idea that there are skilled and unskilled writers are clearly unsustainable. I can produce hundreds of thousands of works by people who are clearly unskilled.

People hire ghostwriters for their autobiographies. Technical Writing as a profession exists because specialists may have difficulty articulating their ideas and experience to non-specialists. A skilled writer has more at their command then mere ability to generate words. They have the ability to evoke emotion, to make a sequence of events that has very little to do with logic seem a rational progression, to create understanding of complex issues that would otherwise overwhelm the reader's ability to work their way through them.

So yes. A skilled writer is a specialist in communicating thoughts, information, feelings. As such it is reasonable to expect he'd be more effective at communicating them than someone who doesn't have his specialty.
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