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Experience and Imagination

If you had the choice to write about being a teenager in the 21st Century or the adventures of an aging Maori warrior in the 1800s, which would you choose?

There is much disagreement in writing circles about what subject matter authors ought to focus on. Should writers explore material beyond their realm of experience or should they stick to what they know? We don’t think there is a simple answer to the question, so let’s take a look at both sides.

Writing from Experience

Many experts recommend that writers write only from their experience. “Focus on what you know,” they say, “and your writing will be natural, personal, and real.” Athletes should write about sports. People who have overcome poverty, handicaps, or tragedy should tell what their experiences have taught them. Novelists who grow up on a farm should stick to rural settings.

Writers who write from experience tend to gain credibility with their readers. Their work is more likely to be sincere, realistic, and convincing.

Just because something is familiar doesn’t mean it has to be dull. Everybody is unique after all. We have experiences, thoughts, and opinions unlike anyone else. Writing from experience taps the resources already resident in your mind and soul. Don’t be concerned that your life is too ordinary or dull for readers. Clever writers can make the most typical situation seem interesting and new.

Moby Dick is a good example of a great work of fiction written out of experience. The book’s author, Herman Melville, shipped out as a cabin boy at the age of twenty in search of adventure. He later joined the U.S. Navy and traveled for a number of years all over the Atlantic and the South Seas. He even spent time among cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. Before turning thirty, Melville came ashore and spent the remainder of his adult life writing stories of adventure at sea.

Writing by Imagination

On the other hand, if writers wrote only out of their experience, we would never get to travel to Lilliput, Oz, Narnia, or Middle Earth. Our minds can travel places our bodies will never go.

One problem with limiting our writing to things we know is that, well, we already know about them! The imagination allows us to create people and places and adventures that crash through the walls of our experience.

Not only does the imagination make fanciful fiction possible, but it also opens the door to more realistic works. Researching cultures and historical periods not only equips us to write about such things, but also exposes us the world outside our own experience. In other words, you don’t have to know something before you write about it. You can get to know something as you write about it!

Writers of historical fiction do exhaustive research to familiarize themselves with the era they are writing about. They work hard to create an interesting story that reveals something about an important time period.

Despite the obvious benefits of writing about what you know, it seems a little silly to limit ourselves to that. Of course, when we write of things outside our experience or expertise, we run the risk of being irrelevant or even mistaken, but it’s often worth the risk.

Writing about what you know or relying on your imagination – we see benefits to both. So here’s our advice: Write out of your experience, but don’t be limited by your experience. Our minds have an amazing capacity for learning and imagining. Put those mental faculties to work. In the end, what makes writing great isn’t so much what you know about, but what you care about.