Must a Great Writer Be the Sum of Their Experiences?

This question wedged its way into my mind about a year ago when I saw the movie Stuck in Love for the first time. The film follows emotional struggles endured by a family of creatives. The father is a New York Times bestselling author, the mother is a painter, the daughter, an upcoming novelist in her early 20s who just sealed a deal with the same company responsible for publishing Stephen King’s books, and the son, an aspiring poet.

In the movie, the father, played by Greg Kinnear, is caught leafing through his son’s writing journal. The son is upset, of course—just as we all would be if we found someone skimming over our deepest thoughts meant solely for the page—and Kinnear finds himself excusing his invasion of his son’s privacy by posing the following concern:

“Flannery O’Connor said nothing needed to happen in a writer’s life after they were 20. By then, they’d experienced more than enough to last their creative life.…I don’t think you’re experiencing enough….A writer is the sum of their experiences. Go get some” (Stuck in Love).

What struck me about Kinnear’s words wasn’t the notion that by 20 years old, a person could have lived a life worth writing about; it was the question of whether or not I had accumulated enough bold experiences in my life to write poetry others would find worth reading.

I have spent quite some time reflecting on this flicker of self-doubt, and I believe that it largely stemmed from the fact that writers, just like painters and musicians, have, over time, been judged by stereotypes about their profession. Perhaps even to the point where they’ve found themselves measuring their capacity to succeed as artists according to what society has deemed typical of “the greats” in their respective fields.

Many of the writers whom I most admire (Ernest Hemingway, Cheryl Strayed, and Jack Gilbert, to name a few) were well-traveled individuals who managed to produce writing that has become embedded in our cultural subconscious. Despite many of these writers’ struggles with alcohol, substance abuse, and emotional turmoil as the result of sexual escapades gone awry and the death of loved ones, they managed to string together memorable stories line by line and word by word, somewhere between shifts for a number of strange jobs they took on in order to pay their bills throughout the majority of their lives. Of course they had plenty of intriguing personal experience to draw off while drafting their writing. Their published works reveal that they wrestled with subject matter (love found, love lost, loneliness, and financial struggle, for example) inseparable from the human condition. In fact, if told to “write what you know,” a snippet of advice that has practically become a catchphrase for instructors of creative writing technique classes today, these writers would surely find themselves sifting through memories their readers would find captivating. But what do I, as a first-year MFA candidate in poetry at UCF, have to offer in that regard?

In my 22 years of life, I cannot say that I have lived boldly, the way Kinnear’s character hoped his son would in order to gather material to draw off of while writing his poetry. And here’s where my journey as a growing writer becomes personal:

I can count the number of romantic relationships I’ve had on three fingers. I enjoy a glass of wine every now and then, but my great fear of one day suffering from Alzheimer’s, which has plagued relatives on both sides of my family, has largely kept me from engaging in activities that could lead me to a state in which I find my judgement greatly impaired. I have worked the same job as a proofreader and typist for a court reporting company in south Florida for the past six years. In fact, I have never lived outside of the state of Florida or fulfilled my dream of traveling abroad to see all of the ancient Greek and Roman archaeological sites I studied as an undergraduate.

However, these limited experiences and missed opportunities do not make me a weaker writer than that peer of mine who is a spouse, parent, former professional athlete, or all of the above. I cannot provide insight on those roles they’ve played throughout their lives, but I can use my writing to share how I perceive beauty and attempt to interpret pain, as small space in which I can attempt to present my own observations about the world in a way that others can read, vividly imagine, and understand without context. Communicating clearly is the goal in the minds of many artists in the process of producing their work, but the good news is, there are several ways that we, as writers-in-progress, can approach it head-on. In my own experience with starting and navigating through early drafts, there is one strategy, in particular, which I’ve found helps create sources of inspiration to draw off of in lieu of the life experience I do not have.

Keep a Bits Journal. This idea was passed down to me by David Kirby in a poetry workshop course I took as an undergraduate. Also known as a commonplace book, a Bits Journal is exactly what it sounds like: a place to compile bits of ideas, snippets of everyday life that prompt us to delve deeper into our thoughts. This could be anything from a line for a poem that came to you while folding laundry, or a piece of conversation you overheard in the booth behind you at Panera. If it causes you to pause, or cry, or riles up something deep inside of you, jot it down. The content you record in your Bits Journal doesn’t have to be expanded upon with notes of explanation. It’s a collection of ideas just for you, a pile of seeds from which you can grow your future writings.

Try out this method for generating raw material, and you may just find that your observations will take you by the hand and guide you toward lines that can remind readers that they aren’t alone by working through clear, concrete images. And is this not one of the most satisfying parts about communicating through writing, the ability to create something that could transport another human being back to a moment when they felt that something you were writing about, too?

All stereotypes about artists aside, I believe that writers are not the sum of a number of extraordinary experiences they’ve had. Rather, I believe writers are those who scrutinize the seemingly mundane aspects of their lives for bits of truth worth trying to illustrate to others. As aspiring writers, our observational skills are key to producing work that reflects fascinating contrasts present all around us. We must commit ourselves to looking for those butterflies perched on trash cans, as one of my former poetry professors would say.

 

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Stephanie Porven is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Central Florida. She believes butterflies bring good luck and coffee is the elixir of life. Her work has appeared in Hypertrophic Literary, The Hamilton Stone Review, The Birds We Piled Loosely, and other online literary magazines.

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