Last week, I was at a party with some older friends of mine and a bunch of people I didn’t know. Some alcohol got involved, so they weren’t “people I didn’t know” for long. In fact, as is wont to happen with significant quantities of alcohol, we all learned a lot about each other.
At one point, one of my friends noted how much great material I could be getting for my writing from this one party.
I hear this a lot, of course. When I was visiting Shanghai, someone I met mentioned that it was a great experience for setting. And certainly, it’s true. I take a lot of characters, bits of dialogue, settings and history directly from my life. (On the West Wing, Rob Lowe’s character Sam Seaborn once remarked, “Good writers borrow from other writers occasionally. Great writer’s steal from them outright.”) I don’t doubt that Shanghai will be the setting of a novel, or at least a scene, in the future.
But whether or not I use a specific life story, piece of dialogue, or character from something like last week’s party, it’s the general experience that is most valuable.
And now whatever way our stories end,
I know you’ll have rewritten mine by being my friend.
–For Good, from Wicked
Everything that we experience affects who we are, what we think, how we view the world. And all of those things directly affect a writer’s writing. I may not directly use anything from the party (assuming I even remember it all…). But it will always be in my mind somewhere — affecting how I understand people and how they interact, and what they feel, and how they show it.
The good people at OnFiction have researched how reading about fictional interactions between people help us understand real interactions between people and increase our empathy. But it’s not a one-way relationship. To portray those edifying interactions in writing, a writer needs to have an experience, an understanding himself, to draw on.
One thing all writers need to do if they want to succeed is to experience life, as much as possible, in as many ways as possible.
Everything I’ve experienced affects who I am, makes me who I am. Who I am colours everything I write. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.