Do You Need Personal Experience to Write About Something?

We writers like think of ourselves as metaphoric magicians—sitting at our desks, spinning worlds out of nothing but words and imagination. Pour a little research into the recipe, and our alchemy is complete. Yet an ongoing question among writers is the evergreen quandary about whether or not we must “write what we know.” In short, do you need personal experience to write about something?

In sorting through my email archives last week, I came upon an email I’d forgotten I’d saved, from a young writer asking this very question. He pointed to such classical giants as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Orwell, who all experienced firsthand what they famously fictionalized—hefty topics such as war, migrant workers, and communism. The email asked, with plainspoken authenticity:

How does someone like me write something that has substance when I haven’t experienced much of the real world?

The standard answer to “must you write what you know?” is a qualified “no.” Sooner or later, we all must write what we don’t know. Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Orwell did it, and so must you and I. We are writing fiction after all. By definition, we’re making it up.

Depending on the story, we may end up writing about things we can’t experience. For instance, if you’re writing about a character who is dying, that isn’t something you can experience yourself and live to the tell the tale. For that matter, any time you write a character who is anything other than a carbon copy of your genetic and psychological makeup (so, pretty much every character you write), you’re going be writing something outside your experience—something you don’t know.

There is, however, another side to the argument. After all, could Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, and so many others have written with such memorable power and authenticity with no personal experience to back them up? Of course we will never know. But I doubt it. We feel an undeniable edge—a truth—to stories that are written out of an author’s own lived experience.

As a young writer, I always squirmed under the harsh light of Henry David Thoreau’s declaration:

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.

Mostly, I squirmed because I wasn’t yet ready to admit how sheltered and inexperienced I was, how little of the world I had seen, how much I had yet to learn. Stories were my window to the world; they were my experience. From that place of inexperience, I wrote stories I’m still proud of, but as I’ve gotten older, Thoreau’s words have come into focus for me. The stories I may write in the future have the potential to be so much more powerful than those I wrote when I was younger, thanks to the widening vista of life experiences.

In short, even though we can (and will) write stories based more on imagination and empathy than lived experience, this hardly negates the tremendous validity of, in fact, writing what we know. This doesn’t mean any one of us should discount the importance of whatever life experiences we’ve already lived or hold back on writing the stories that are ready to be written right now. What it does mean is that, particularly as writers, we should be willing to fling ourselves wide open to the banquet life sets before us.

Does this mean you have to go to war if you’re going to write about it? Visit every story setting in person? Test-drive all your characters’ bad habits? Exemplify all of their virtues?

Of course not. Especially if you write speculative fiction such as fantasy or sci-fi, that whole line of questioning grows quickly ridiculous.

What “write what you know” does mean, in my view, is that we need to cultivate awareness around whatever experiences we do have and to take them seriously in translating them into fiction that rings with authenticity.

4 Different Ways to Write What You Know

The advice to “write what you know” always seems to receive a fair amount of pushback. I think this is for the simple reason that its phrasing is too generic. What does it even mean? After all, I know all about Mary, Queen of Scots. That doesn’t mean I know her. I know lots of things about Hogwarts. Doesn’t mean I’ve been there.

These days so much of what we experience is vicarious, thanks to other people’s stories on the news, social media, and of course in books and movies. As a result, we can find a great deal of gray area between our “knowledge” of things and our “experience” of things. For instance, we can experience something viscerally by watching it in a movie or on the news (even to the point of traumatizing ourselves). However, even though this is a legitimate experience, it is not the same as a lived experience.

Both can be fodder for strong and authentic stories, but I believe it is important to recognize the different flavors brought to our stories through different varieties of experience. In mulling on this, I realized there are four possible ways to “know” something, each one aligning with a different intelligence center.

1. Write What You Experience (Embodied Knowledge)

One way or another, there is simply no substitute for our own lived experiences. My lived experience tells me this is so because we experience these real-life moments not just in our heads and our imaginations, but in our bodies. Empathically feeling someone else’s pain, fear, or joy is powerful, but it is rarely a full-body, full-sensory experience. However, what you experience in your own body, even if it as simple as licking salt off your fast-food fries, changes you. If what you’ve experienced is profound, it can alter the very way you look at life itself.

First-hand research of riding a horse or visiting the beach will provide you with the truth of the experience in ways you can’t access simply by observing or reading about the experience. Amp that up, and you realize that when you personally experience life-changing moments, you are the one who just lived through a story. Of course, that then has the potential to become a powerful force within your writing, even if you translate your experience into story events that are far removed from the trappings of your own life moment.

In short, don’t stint on life experiences. I realize this advice will be preaching to the choir for many. Some of you are out there having so much fun that your challenge is slowing down long enough to come in and write about it. However, many writers (*raises hand*) choose writing for the very reason that it seems to be a nice, quiet, introverted way to engage with the powerful moments in life. It lets us be astronomers instead of astronauts, to experience the vastness of space from a safe seat, complete with sun-proof goggles. If that sounds like you, then my words to you are: Don’t forget to go live your own stories to the best of your capabilities.

2. Write What You Feel (Emotional Knowledge)

Basically, the above point is all about not using the amazing capabilities of our imaginations as excuses for avoiding the first-hand experiences that will make us more powerful writers. It is not to say, however, that first-hand experience is the only way to write authentic stories. You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest to be able to write about powerful experiences. All you have to do is be willing to look deeply into your own interior.

Don’t think that’s copping out either. Spelunking into the depths of one’s own shadow can be every bit as daring as climbing to 30,000 feet. The trick is a) going there and b) being honest about what you experience. Then bring that back and use it to inform your fiction.

You don’t have to experience war in order to write authentically about fear. You don’t have to crash a plane in the wilderness to write about loneliness. And you don’t have to give birth to write about a parent’s love. But you do have to be willing to go into those places inside yourself that know fear, loneliness, love, joy, hate, ecstasy, bitterness, peace, etc. (And if you find you don’t really know any one of those feelings, then perhaps you’ve found a little bit of homework for point #1, above, or point #3, below.)

3. Write What You Dream (Intuitive Knowledge)

By “dream” here, I don’t just mean nighttime dreams, although of course they are always good fodder for fiction. What I’m talking about here is using the actual writing of your fiction as a sort of “dreaming out loud” to access your own inner truths and experiences. Basically, that is what written stories are—“out-loud dreams.” Particularly if you haven’t over-engineered a story with with your left brain, but just let it unfold (whether in an outline or in the first draft), what ends up between the covers of your book will be a deeply disguised but still startlingly accurate map of yourself.

In many ways, the very act of writing fiction is an exploration of knowing one’s self. By that logic, it is impossible for us to do anything other than “write what you know.” Mostly, we do this instinctively, and that’s enough, especially if we’re also engaging in the other practices in this article. But consciously examining our stories (in the same way we might try to interpret a dream) can help us better know ourselves and therefore what it is we’re really drawing on from our own experiences to create the various fantasies (and not just the genre) we’re choosing to put on the page, many of which are archetypal without our even realizing it.

4. Write What You Research (Head Knowledge)

Paradoxically, head knowledge can be both the strongest and the weakest of our intelligence centers. It is weak if we overvalue it at the expense of our own lived experiences. But it is undeniably powerful in granting us the ability to write with realism and verisimilitude about just about any topic that interests us.

With a little applied research or a little vicarious experience, we can bring verisimilitude to far-distant historical eras, to politics and power games happening behind closed doors, to fantastical creatures of nonexistent realities, to places in our own world we haven’t the time or money to visit, or to dangerous situations we aren’t trained to handle.

All the research in the world won’t substitute for emotional authenticity and honesty in your story’s scenes, but it can breathe stunning life into the details of those scenes. Dedicated head knowledge can help you fill in a myriad of gaps, while the lived experiences of your life unfold in their own good time.

***

So do you need personal experience in order to write about something?

Yes, you do. You need every scrap of experience from every moment of your life.

But those experiences are are ever-growing. I would say to the young man who emailed me that the stories you write at eighteen are not the stories you will write at thirty-eight, and the stories you write at thirty-eight are not, I daresay, the stories you will write at sixty-eight or eighty-eight. But they are all valid.

A person who has not yet lived through certain life experiences will not write about those subjects in the same way as someone who has, but that doesn’t mean the stories shared by the less-experienced person are inherently less valuable. The value in either boils down to accuracy and authenticity. Write the stories you have to tell right now, and let life’s experiences teach you what you will write next.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think—do you need personal experience to write about something? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Piero Mattirolo says

    What a welcome subject. My answer to this question is that most writers, who are not just writing a chronicle of their own life, simply draw from the experience of events they have lived and combine them in a different sequence and different contexts. Because in my view, we are all interchangeable, just as are interchangeable our behaviours towards other people. If you have held some responsibility in your life, or served customers, it doesn’t much matter how many people you were dealing with: you already have enough to write about and can easily imagine the kind of pressure from the public you would get if you were prime minister or secretary of defense or similar. I think that the process of writing, for just everyone, is about cutting to pieces one’s own life and recombining the parts in a different sequence.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I agree. I used to say I didn’t want to write about my real life because… I’d already experienced it and rehashing it would be boring. But I’ve since realized that, however heavily disguised in incidental symbolism, everything I write is a rehash of my life!

  2. A sensible look at this topic. I think people often take it too literally and
    think they can’t write about a parent’s love for their child if they never had children, etc. Or that they can’t write about a town they never visited. (Google Earth and maps are great resources here.)

  3. George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry didn’t know that much about space travel and look what they both gave the world. Just a thought.

  4. If we all accepted limitations, there would never be art.

  5. Robin Graham says

    Even very young writers experience things that are writing fodder. In primary school I was bullied such that I became very much a loner, and left me with a hatred of the educational system. In secondary school, I was bullied by one person who later became a friend when I helped her sort out a problem she was having with her guitar-playing. Issues around bullying have found their way into my writing, to a greater or lesser extent, ever since.

    Even if you haven’t lived very long yet, you will still have experiences that can inform your writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very sorry to hear about your experiences, but it sounds like you’ve turned them into healing experiences for both yourself and other people.

  6. Gary Lee Webb says

    As always, excellent coverage of the subject. With respect to #4, let me add that a particularly valuable bit of research is to query a friend’s experience. When I wrote my “Blessings of the Night” (published May 2016 in the “Betrayals of Another Kind” 2016 Fantasy Writers Anthology), set in eastern India, I queried a good friend about my descriptions of the landscape, interesting local cuisine I might add, and so on. I do think her personal knowledge improved my story, although she had not lived in the 1600s (when I set the story).

    Mind you, I do all of the usual research: encyclopedias, journals, Wikipedia. Caution on the last one: I have seen them cite a biological change 170,000 years ago occurring due to a habit change 110,000 years ago (fortunately they cited their sources and the biological change was 107,000 years ago — the Wiki author had swapped two digits). And credit the brother who died heroically at the Battle of King’s Mountain, Revolutionary War, as the father of my great-great grandmother, 8 years later. Long pregnancy!! (All three brothers fought in the battle, but my great-great grandfather was one of the two *surviving* brothers). The newspaper journalist credited the famous brother.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good points. Wikipedia can be a great place to start researching when we’re looking for an overview of the subject, but as you note, it’s not always accurate. Important facts should be double-checked in other resources.

  7. Stephen Crane was born after the Civil War, but his Red Badge of Courage had war veterans believing he’d experienced what he wrote.

  8. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a blog on the same subject. You put it eloquently. Use what you’ve gathered down deep in your soul as well as a bit of research on a specific topic to engage the reader. Well done!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Use what you’ve gathered down deep in your soul as well as a bit of research on a specific topic to engage the reader.”

      Spot on!

  9. Colleen F Janik says

    What an excellent, well timed topic! I just finished reading “The Sea Garden” by Deborah Lawrenson about World War II France. I love visiting that setting in the books I read. She did an extensive job in researching that era and the people and also visited many of the sites involved.
    I am attempting to write a novel involving characters living through World War 1 France. I’ve done a lot of research but will never be able to visit those sites. So naturally I have some doubts about my ability to relate those war experiences in an accurate, believable way.
    HOWEVER, even when we experience these events, are we even caable of fully describing the scenes, the sounds, the smells, the way the smoke burned your eyes? Being traumatized by such experiences, we would probably just shudder and say, “It was horrible.”
    So it still comes down to analyzing each part of the scene and FINDING THE WORDS to help the reader experience living through the joy or the horror or pain. That is the task of the writer. That is our challenge. If we can make the reader shudder, laugh, cry, gasp, we have succeeded.
    That is my goal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Local geography and spatial research has always been one of the trickiest bits for me. It’s gotten a lot easier these days, thanks to Google Images and Maps.

  10. I could say I’ve had a few experiences.

    At the age of eleven, when my mother was a nightclub singer, we fled Ohio for Texas to escape her second husband, a man connected to the mob. Within days of our arrival in Dallas they’d tracked us down and he had one of his mob friends call her, threatening to throw acid in her face and hurt my sister and me if she didn’t go back.

    That she did, and I didn’t see her again until I was in my twenties and married, living in Oklahoma. Broken hearts on all sides prevented us from ever again becoming mother and son.

    When I began writing my works in progress, I thought that was fodder for a great story. What I came to realize was that what intrigued me more as a writer wasn’t the external drama but what even the most mundane of life events can trigger inside of us. As a result, my series will tell the story of how fear overshadowed the life of a woman and echoed through the lives of her two children.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Wow, that is a story. I think sometimes it’s difficult to truly write about the events of our own lives that have affected us most deeply. Sometimes, we have to come at them sideways, to tell their heart and not always their details.

      • Wanda Bowring says

        That’s an excellent point about coming at our own experienced trauma’s sideways. However, writing about a deeply held experience and taking it through a rigorous editing process releases us from the captive hold it has. Freeing us to use every part of that experience in our work. Going from being an emotionally held captive to a cathartic release is worth the short-lived pain the process can cause.

  11. I agree that our lived experiences will find their way into what we write, no matter how we try to disguise them. And, I daresay, every work of fiction combines all four levels of ‘experience’ you describe.

  12. I agree that what we have experiences, felt, dreamed and learned can be woven together into a coherent whole that tells a unique story. It falls upon us as writers to find a way to use these elements using character, plot, setting and theme to be able to help readers experience it for themselves. This is the challenge.

    I would also add to your list that which we read and watch. These avenues especially those that have profoundly affected us become a part of our experience, emotions, sometimes dreams and knowledge that we can draw on that at well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agreed. I was lumping “reading and watching” into the category of mental research, but both can truly be experiential in their own ways.

  13. FWIW, I think the most single important experience an author can bring to the table is the experience of having honestly met their own shortcomings. When I write, I draw on my own failures more than any successes, and most of all, those times I’ve faced adversity that forced me to do some serious soul searching. I don’t give my characters exactly the same problems, but I know what problems feel like, and I think this makes me far less inclined to create flat characters.

    Really, that’s the main place where I pull from life experiences – characterization, even for bit parts it helps to connect with their humanity. As it happens, I write fantasy, so there are large swaths of story action/world building that aren’t open to direct experience. That’s where lots of different types of research come into play.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love all of this, but especially this: “I think the most single important experience an author can bring to the table is the experience of having honestly met their own shortcomings.”

    • Piero Mattirolo says

      I think you really hit the nail on the head. Writing honestly about your struggles, your shortcomings, which you may overcome or not – no matter – is the only thing that can be shared with other people and, as it happens, creates the much sought conflict. No one is interested in a story where a rich fellow goes buy a Porsche. More interesting is a story where a beggar ends up owning a Porsche, or maybe never getting one, for all that.

  14. “Write the stories you have to tell right now, and let life’s experiences teach you what you will write next.” The best quote you could give us. Thank you so much.

    This is what I have been doing while writing my books, all 4 things sprinkled in every character. Now I know how to call it. Thank you for all you do.

  15. Grace Dvorachek says

    I love this post! I’ve often wondered about the phrase, “Write what you know,” and now I finally have a satisfactory explanation. #2 and #3 are definitely the parts that stand out in my stories, but I’ve recently come to realize that I do—and should—use all 4 of these.

    Though I tend to hate writing about my own life, I can now recognize myself in so many areas of my works. And, though I always shudder when it comes time to research, I’ve seen head knowledge come out in my stories that I didn’t even know I had.

    Oh, and I’m also one of those people who write so I can experience something without actually living it. That part of #1 hit me right between the eyes…

  16. Jennifer Derringer says

    As a trans-woman living in Silicon Valley that is currently working on a semi-autobiographical memoir, I feel it is important for me to have lived every moment/experience as my life identifying with a gender that I was not born with.

    I mean, how else could I pour such passion and authenticity into something?

    Kind of like Taylor Swift writing her hits about a broken heart. Would those songs be such great hits if she didn’t live those gut-wrenching and joyous moments?

  17. Peter B. Reiter says

    My key takeaway: “When you personally experience life-changing moments, you are the one who just lived through a story.” That tells me what story is in the first place. A life-changing moment in itself. Everything builds around that.

    Thank you.

  18. Wanda Bowring says

    I really appreciated this post, although I already thought mostly the same as you. I must say though I read a memoir a few years back where the writer spoke of her drug use. Frankly I thought it BS as there were many instances where the experiences just didn’t ring true for me. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is write what’s true for the genre and don’t write about a subject if it “really” requires personal experience to “ring true” to the reader. For me, nothing is more distracting and disappointing than to be pulled out of a story because I’ve been interrupted by sensing plagiarism, a fake voice, or experiences that don’t ring true.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’d say this, in part, comes down to getting our facts right. For instance, I grew up around horses, so I’m often thrown (pun unintended) when stories get their horse facts wrong.

  19. I love this article and how clearly you’ve broken it down. I don’t know where that phrase originated, but it’s become a tiresome cliché. We all know what it is to feel, and that’s really what most stories are about. I’ve heard it rephrased as ‘write what you want to know,’ which brims with creative freedom. I’m sure we all use a blend of those four knowledge types to suit the projects we’re working on. Thank you for this wise post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I was just thinking that the phrase “write what you know” almost certainly originated prior to the digital age. Back then, it was much harder to write convincingly about subjects with which you didn’t have personal experience. I remember writing my Crusade book back when Internet resources were just becoming available; it was so much harder to get a sense for what the geography and such were. Later books were a breeze to research and write in comparison.

      So I do think perhaps what was originally good advice has become a bit dated. The heart of it is still true, but we have to take into consideration modern resources as well.

  20. Lew Kaye-Skinner says

    The introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the book, not the movie) explains how the whole thing began as a half-waking dream. It’s an interesting account.
    For a long time, some of my writing friends asked wihy I never wrote about my step-dad. Our relationship was deeply fraught. In my recently self-published novel, he appears as a significant character but with so many details changed that he isn’t really recognizable.
    The work that is currently front and center is about bull dancing. Think ancient Cretan bull vaulting combined with gymnastics, dance, trampoline, and bulls that have been bred into a much different track than modern bovines. So, it’s vastly different than my experience of Nebraska cattle. However, my experiences on the farm and in high school sports deeply inform what my characters are doing and saying. I have experienced cattle and sports, if not these cattle and this sport.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is such a great example of how one type of experience can inform the writing about an entirely different type of experience.

  21. Lew Kaye-Skinner says

    Long ago, when I was first in grad school, the philosophy professor quoted a Dutch proverb. “One has got to row with the oars one has got because one cannot row with the oars one has not got.”

  22. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was from the author J.C.Kang (https://jckang.dragonstonepress.us/ ), a beta reader of a novel I wrote that takes place in Japan. Because of the level and type of detail I included, he’d assumed that I must have lived there for a while (I’ve never set foot in Japan) Given that his wife is Japanese and he had lived there for awhile, I was incredibly flattered.

  23. I appreciate this breakdown of the “write what you know” advice which describes different kinds of knowledge. I draw my writing from my life experiences, but with settings based on distant or imaginary places and times. I’m a fairly private person, so I don’t want my stories traced to certain “real” people, places, and events. I also want my writing to resonate with people besides myself. For instance, my daily journal entries are more accurate descriptions of my life than my fiction writing, but they have limited potential for audience interest and identification.

    This is why I sometimes find writers like Hemmingway, Steinbeck, or Orwell tedious and off-putting. Some of their writing comes across as ripping adventures, deep explorations of humanity, or enlightening witness to particular historical moments. At other times, these authors remind me of someone monologuing about their travels and political opinions over dinner. Writing from the authority that comes with personal knowledge without writing like an reader-alienating know-it-all is a difficult balance to strike.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. There are definitely episodes from all of those authors that are more accessible and interesting than others.

  24. >>I know lots of things about Hogwarts. Doesn’t mean I’ve been there.

    Which is a shame, really! 😅

  25. Thanks for this insightful post.
    I am blind. However, very little of my poetry or other writings touches on this fact. Indeed a number of people have commented that certain of my poems are quite visual in nature.
    I have no issue whatsoever with people who do not have a visual impairment writing about blind or visually impaired people. However, a good author would do his/her research, including (most importantly) speaking to people with little or no sight, and reading the experiences of people with visual difficulties. Simply writing about a disability without conversing who those who have that disability would, almost certainly lead to an inaccurate portrayal of the character being portrayed in the literary work.

    Best wishes. Kevin

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