Thirty-six years ago, when I was the most naive newbie tank crewman in the United States Army, I had a friend by the name of Greene, from Boston (or Bahston). He and I were the only sci-fi nerds in our troop, so we basically bonded, despite the fact that he was years older than my nineteen, as well as a socialist and an atheist (the Army expanded my horizons in many ways). Even then I knew I wanted to write, and I tried to share some of my early scribblings with him. Greene basically felt it his duty to inject some realism into my wide-eyed optimism, and one of the points he tried to impress on me was that many or most writers don’t really achieve success until they reach middle-age. At the time I remember thinking I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?
The mileposts on that road have moved a considerable distance since then….
But the point that Greene was trying to get through to me was important– life experience is critical to the growth of a writer.
When I was nineteen, because of the insular culture in which I grew up, I was very naive and out of touch with how most people lived. Getting dropped into the Army was a profound shock. My lack of experience showed in my writing, which was why Greene was trying to introduce some correctives into my thinking.
‘Life experience’ is another one of those topics you can Google and get a boatload of links. In fact, some helpful people at Goodreads have gathered up a few hundred quotes on life experience from writers and put them here. I’ll just steal the topmost from the list–
“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
― Stephen King
In the thirty-six years since my buddy Greene tried to talk me down out of my naivete tree, I can testify that the experiences of my life have informed and transformed my writing. Military service, college, failed relationships, marriage, academic success, academic failure, work, miscarriage, late-life fatherhood, all have fed into my writing. It doesn’t matter that most of my writing is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres; the mundane details of an ordinary life translate directly into richer detail in any imaginary universe, whatever the genre (I’ll tell you a secret– sci-fi has always been about people. Forget that ‘literature of ideas’ stuff).
Because I’ve lived and worked with some very interesting people, I have a wider palate of characters to draw on now than when I was nineteen. I have lived through, and survived, many, many mistakes. I know from the inside what failed relationships feel like. I know fear, because I tasted it the moment they told me my wife had pre-eclampsia and my daughter was coming into the world seven weeks early (update, fifteen years later: both are doing great). I know what it’s like to bury a father.
At this point, many, many young writers are probably dismayed, or crying foul, or saying “I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?” (Take it from me, you’ll get there sooner than you think). I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from writing just because they’re young. The first thing I want to say is that, if you want to be a writer, you can’t start too soon. Practice is critical, so if you can start as soon as you can string words into sentences, do so. No later than eight, I’d say.
The second thing I need to say about experience is that it is not just enough to live a number of years– everybody does that. The important thing a writer has to do with that experience is notice what is happening– in other words, to observe what life throws at you. Someone once said that writers are supposed to be good ‘noticers’. I like the word– to me it sums up one of the most important tools in a writer’s kit.
Jane Austen only lived to the age of 41, and she lived that short life within the confines of a small, middle-class country society of spinsters, gentry and ministers. It is generally agreed, however, that Austen produced great literature, and she did it by closely observing that society and fearlessly writing about it.
Shakespeare was probably not yet thirty when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The film Shakespeare in Love is about ninety percent fiction, but I love it for how it depicts Shakespeare as a writer melding the experiences of his life into the creation of the play (and not scrupling at stealing a good line when he hears it). Tom Stoppard was one of the writers on the screenplay, and it shows.
S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen.
Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon at the age of fifteen.
The point is that, however much life experience you have, you can create powerful literature out of it if you observe it closely, and write honestly about it. Older writers just have the advantage of many more life lessons on which to draw. Personally, my own development as a writer was delayed because it took me a long time to understand the necessity and power of observing life closely.
So be of good heart, young writers– you can still write, and write well. You just have to work harder at it.
As for us older writers– well, we have less excuse if we screw things up.
With this post I think I have covered everything I want to say regarding a writer’s needfuls. I didn’t want to just repeat the standard advice you can get by googling “writing advice”– I wanted to talk about some of the habits of mind and qualities of spirit I think a writer needs. Again, however, nothing I discussed is original with me.
Ironically, doing one of these posts a day has once more put me behind on Princess of Fire. I am therefore setting myself a goal– I want to get to 50,000 words on Fire by January 1st. That would be about 14,000 words in 7 days. That will be a forced-march pace, but I want to give it a shot.
All bets are off, though, if I get a job.