Must You Experience Something To Write About It?


J.K. Rowling never attended a school for wizards and witches, or at least that is the common theory. Surely, if wizards did exist, might they be outraged that a simple Muggle speaks for their struggles, their experience? What is an experience, or rather “the experience” of any certain group? Maybe Rowling need not fear backlash from wand-wielding cloak-wearers, but what about writers who write outside of their experience?

Not every crime writer started out as a detective or cop or anything more than a college graduate. Beyond the need for clearly explaining the real world aspects of jobs writers may not have, they may approach a lifestyle they have never approached. Generally, when I pick up a book by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, I can expect their depictions of growing up black and female in America to be accurate. Of course, those experiences do not encompass everyone’s experience, but they make a good representative example.

But what about when I write about being a black female in America? Could my words be taken just as solidly as theirs? After all, it would merely be a representative experience, right? The problem arises that I don’t know what it’s like to be black or female, and although I could research “what it’s like” and read endless books, I may never really know. That’s okay: I’ll write about it anyways.

Because no one can put their feet in everyone’s shoes. We can do only what we can, right? If I only wrote about bookish middle-class white males from Aiken, South Carolina, I might as well write a memoir. All that Write What You Know tripe, it rings true to a certain extent, but it can seriously mangle creativity. And if you never attempt to replace your eyes with the eyes of another, you’ll never learn their perspective.

I thought about this dilemma while outlining a new story about gay homeless teens in New York. I’m not gay, and I’m not homeless. I’ve never even been to New York, but I still think I can write the story. Of course I’ll do research, just like I did research when Is tarted my newest novel about boxing. I did not know anything about boxing culture or rules or even dress, but I learned. You read and read and talk to people who know what it’s like to be whoever you’re writing. Often, I base my stories off of real-life events or ideas or groups, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of them.

Surely, Thomas Harris never ate a single human being before penning Silence of the Lambs.

When I began In Lickskillet, one of the characters seemed to be half-black, half-white. There was no reason for it, but that’s how he looked in my mind, and I didn’t shy away from addressing his perspective. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe I assumed many egregious things, but I tried.

There is no gay experience or black experience, only the stereotypical ideas about such experiences. Either there is only one experience (the human experience) that we can all understand, or there are infinite experiences (meaning none of us will ever fully understand one another). My job as a writer is to try to understand, even though I know I can’t.

What do you think? Should authors tackle difficult subjects they’ve never encountered firsthand or act more like journalists?


4 thoughts on “Must You Experience Something To Write About It?

  1. I think the job of the author is entirely that of a journalist. That absolutely does not mean I think you should only stick to your experience! What I mean when I say that is simply: that if we do not know about another human’s or ethnic culture’s experience then we play the journalist and find out. It is perfectly ok that we start out not knowing, but we had better do some research! What is important is writing from an enlightened perspective. I think you’re on the right track. Keep it up!

  2. What’s more important – credibility or creativity? I disagree that there is only one experience as well and I think to is arrogant to assume it. If you haven’t lived a situation, you need at least to expose yourself to it to gain a degree of empathy for it. You don;t know anything about the “gay” experience but how many gay people have you talked to , lived with, really gotten inside of to be able to write authentically about them? You do have to write what you know, not what you assume or pick up third hand. if you haven’t then you are just a poseur.

    1. I’d agree about that. But I mean, in that sense, of course I have gay friends I can talk to about their experiences. I’m not saying charge forward without any knowledge at all.
      Sometimes, however, we cannot gain firsthand experience about what we write about.
      Not every writer who has depicted Paris has been there, so this isn’t just about people, but about all sorts of experiences.
      I just hope that when I do try to speak from whatever perspective I chose, it comes off as authentic. And I think for something to be authentic, it should at least appear to be personal.

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