A recent Reddit thread asked an interesting question:
Can you be a good writer if you have a boring life?
Hemingway once said:
“In order to write about life first you must live it.”
Do you think it's true? Do I have to live certain experiences to be able to write about them correctly? Or, by contrast, could a writer with a boring life, a 9 to 5 job that drains his energy, few hobbies, and no social interaction, write believable and plausible stories (simply by using his imagination)? - Reddit Poster
I think absolutely anybody can. Creative people can do anything. We can invent ways to put men on the moon. We can cure disease. We can even make software that people like me can use, for free, to write stories, biographies, articles, and then e-mail out to subscribers.
Hemingway's statement, "In order to write about life first you must live it," suggests that personal experience is essential for writers to create meaningful and authentic stories.
Hemingway was known for his adventurous lifestyle, which included experiences such as big-game hunting, bullfighting, and serving as a war correspondent.
His writing often reflected his love of outdoor activities. He believed that his experiences provided him with the material he needed to write compelling stories.
While it is true that personal experience can inform a writer's work, it is not a requirement for good writing.
Writers draw inspiration from their imagination, observation, research, and other sources. But if you had to rely only on experience, there would be no fantasy or science fiction writing.
Many great writers led relatively quiet and uneventful lives, yet their writing is considered some of the most profound and influential in literature:
Gustave Flaubert, who was just as great as Hemingway, advised:
Be boring and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work
Plenty of writers meet this ideal of a "boring" life.
Jane Austen: Austen is considered one of the greatest writers in the English language, yet her life was relatively uneventful. She lived in a small village and never married. Her novels, such as "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility," are famous for their wit, humor, and social commentary.
J.D. Salinger: Salinger is known for his novel "The Catcher in the Rye," which is considered a classic of American literature. However, Salinger lived a reclusive life in rural New Hampshire and was known to be a private person.
George Eliot: Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, a Victorian-era writer who is best known for her novel "Middlemarch." Evans was a private person who lived a quiet life in the English countryside.
Franz Kafka: Franz Kafka's life was not particularly exciting in the traditional sense. He spent most of his adult life working as a lawyer for an insurance company, which was a job he disliked.
He was also plagued by various physical and emotional health problems throughout his life.
His inner life was rich and complex, and he channeled his struggles and anxieties into his writing, producing some of the most influential works of the 20th century. So, while Kafka's life may not have been full of adventure, it was certainly not unremarkable in terms of its impact on literature and culture.
Immanuel Kant: Immanuel Kant, a professor in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), led a simple life and never married. However, his philosophical ideas, outlined in works like "Critique of Pure Reason" and "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals," were groundbreaking and still studied today.
Emily Dickinson: Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive life in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts and rarely left town. Despite limited social interactions, her writing was deeply influenced by her observations and inner struggles, making her one of the most important American poets of the 19th century, with a rich and meaningful literary impact.
Octavia Butler: Octavia Butler wrote in her essay on writing that her life was very boring, because all she ever did was write stories.
Charles Dickens: Charles Dickens was one of the greatest novelists in history, yet lived his life "as orderly as any clerk".
Furthermore, personal experience is not always enough to make good writing. Writers must also have the skill, dedication, and imagination to create compelling stories that resonate with their readers. So while personal experience can be a valuable tool for writers, it is not the only factor that determines the quality of their work.
This comment to the original Reddit poster’s question is quite good. The answer comes from Redditor George Winterborn.
There's a level of empathetic relatability that can be applied between experiences, I think. Maybe you've never bungee jumped, but you've probably done something exciting that was flavored by risk or danger. You can apply experience versatility across scenarios through applied empathy, research, and meditative imagination. That's basically what the idiom "write what you know" is talking about. You don't have to limit what you write about to what you've done, but you should only write about things you can understand. Experience is one of several keys to empathy, and empathy is the vessel in which you'll find understanding.
Would someone be able to write about healthy romantic relationships if they've never experienced one? Possibly. If they could apply the knowledge they've gained from other interpersonal relationships they've had to the process of empathizing with, and through that understanding, what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship, they could probably manage to put some approximation of the concept to paper.
Most fantasy writers have never been to war, but they manage to write compelling battle scenes. George Martin actually applies his perspective as someone who's anti-war as a tool to explore and expose the harsher, less glorious aspects of battle and war.
That's part of why being a reader, especially one who reads about history, sociology, psychology, and life, helps when attempting to be a writer. Didactic knowledge can be as useful as experiential knowledge when it comes to reaching understanding through empathy.
I think, "in order to write about life, first you must live it," is trying to express the idea that in order to reach understanding of the world and its myriad sensations, emotions, flavors, and hazards, you have to have had enough varied experiences of your own to apply that knowledge through empathy to understand the experiences you've not had first-hand.
I can say that, based on my personal experience, a person hasn't experienced the darkest depths of fear until they've had a child who is their entire responsibility. I knew the fear of death, the fear of phobia, and they pale into transparency when compared to the fear of the death of my child.
Does that mean I don't think someone without kids can write about fear, or even the fear of losing a child? Not even sort of. I think it's entirely possible for them to draw on the experiences and information they've gathered during their own lives to approximate those sensations and emotions to paper. That's why we evolved to have empathy and imagination--so we can navigate social experiences with understanding and camaraderie, despite our personal experiences, even if we struggle with social interactions in a general way. Translating those innate concepts to a simulated environment is probably easier than applying them to the real world in some cases.
Concentrate on writing what you know through understanding, rather than exclusively what you know through experience. Develop expanded understanding through applied empathy, reading, research, and exercises in meditative imagination.
TL:DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) - The key to great writing is understanding and empathy, not just personal experience.
Empathy can be developed through research and imagination, allowing writers to draw on knowledge gained from other experiences.
"Write what you know" means you should write about what you can understand, not just what you've experienced. Reading about history, sociology, psychology, and life can also help writers develop a broader understanding of the world.
Writers can draw on their knowledge and empathy to create compelling stories, even if they haven't personally experienced everything they write about.
Writers should focus on writing what they understand and expand their understanding through empathy, research, and imagination.
On the Other Hand
Harlan Ellison: Harlan Ellison agrees with Hemingway, and he says you must live an exciting life to write an exciting story.
Hunter S. Thompson: Thompson was an American journalist and writer who is best known for his book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," which chronicles his drug-fueled adventures in Las Vegas. He was known for his wild lifestyle, which included heavy drug use and a love of guns.
In 1966 Thompson wrote a non-fiction book titled "Hell's Angels" The book is an account of Thompson's experiences with the notorious motorcycle gang, the Hells Angels, during a year of their activities in California. It portrays the Angels as violent and dangerous outlaws who operate outside of the law and the norms of society. The book became a bestseller and is considered a classic of "new journalism" for its immersive, participatory approach to reporting.
Here are a few more authors with some wild and exciting lives:
Jack Kerouac: Jack Kerouac is known for his involvement in the Beat Generation and his travels across the United States, which he documented in his novel "On the Road."
Sylvia Plath: Sylvia Plath was known for her turbulent personal life and struggles with mental illness, which informed much of her writing.
Arthur Rimbaud: Arthur Rimbaud was a French poet known for his unconventional lifestyle, which included running away from home, traveling extensively, and engaging in drug use and hedonistic behavior.
Jean Genet: Jean Genet was a French novelist and playwright known for his life of crime, including a stint in prison, which influenced his writing about the marginalization of society's outcasts.
Ken Kesey: Ken Kesey - an American novelist and countercultural figure who is best known for his novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He was also a key figure in the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, and his experiences with LSD inspired his later works.
Charles Bukowski: Charles Bukowski was an American poet and novelist who wrote about the gritty, raw aspects of life. He lived a hard-drinking, hard-living lifestyle and often wrote about his experiences in his work.
William S. Burroughs: William S. Burroughs, was an American writer and artist who was also a key figure in the Beat Generation. He is best known for his experimental novel "Naked Lunch."
The debate about whether writers need to live an exciting life or not is irrelevant. Emotions are at the core of great fiction, and all humans have emotions. Even solitary lives can be used to create great stories.
As writers, what matters is being able to observe and use the emotions that are already within us. George Winterborns term “empathetic relatability” seems to sum it up.
Sooo, what do you guys and girls think? Does experience matter most on our quest to be great writers? Comments would be great. Peace!
Cool idea to write about and loads of great examples! Personally I agree with Hemingway - you need to live, but the I think “living” that looks boring from the outside can also be extraordinary depending how you see it and experience it. Some of my best sources of inspiration come from looking at or being involved in mundane things instead of my travels or the like. I need to come back to some of the authors you mention here in more detail. So well researched and fun, too. Thank you!
Interesting how so many amazing creators took opposite sides on this debate. Like everything in life, I think it requires a balance. Living a wild life definitely gives you more to write about, but if you're too busy living crazily you'll never sit down and create.