The Dissonance Between Experience and Writing Place

Birth of New Man, Salvador Dali, 1943
Birth of New Man, Salvador Dali, 1943

In introduction to philosophy in junior college, we talked about throwness, the idea that who you are, specifically, your perspective, is an accidental fact of where you were thrown in the big scheme of existence.

I’ve been thinking about how this concept applies to being a writer. Am I imprisoned by my surroundings, my accidental “place”? Sometimes I feel that way, but then, everyone who travels must feel it because they seek to step out of their everyday experiences. At this moment, I do not have the way–the finances, the courage, the readiness to do it, to travel outside of my country, outside my comfort. Eventually, I will. But will that itch end there? I guess my question is can a writer still be a good one, an honest one, if they’re making up every place they write about? I have always believed they can. And not only that, but even if it is a place that has no relevance in reality, the imagination can still–potentially, arguably–be restricted by the lack of encounters with other places–cities, countries, infrastructure, topography, weather, cultures…the list goes on and on.

“For the thinker, as for the artist, what counts in life is not the number of rare and exciting adventures he encounters, but the inner depth in that life, by which something great may be made out of even the paltriest and most banal of occurrences.”

–William Barrett, from Irrational Man

I have always fiercely believed that we create our own adventures and carry with us the depth of that life. As I become more desperate for a taste of the world that is an outer dark to me, an untraversed realm I must cross to attain fulfillment, I wonder: is this another instance of my idealistic naivete. Or is this lack of experience the source of my naivete?

I have a novel called The Seer that takes place in 18th century England, in rural Cottswold Hills, in a town of my own devising. I can google and research all I want and may even be able to get a semi-accurate picture of what it was like to accurately describe tastes, smells, sights, but I can’t really know what it feels like. And even if my writing doesn’t reflect that lack of experience, I need to go. I want to feel history beneath my feet, under my fingertips, smell it in the air.  I want to feel the cold wet stones of old buildings that knew the fingertips of people from centuries ago.  Maybe this is all romanticization, but I want it, to expand my inner world, which will likely benefit my writing, the world experience of it, the knowledge of it. Can someone hope to be a great writer even if they don’t have the means to acquire life experience through travel though?

I’ve always used setting as a backdrop. In infusing my characters with all the life I could spare for them, I let setting serve its purpose to buttress the tale through the characters. But of course my instinct tells me that it is always better to know place. I’m a writer, by nature an explorer, a researcher, a traveler of unknown realms.

My short story, “The Emerald Stretch”, takes place in the Mojave desert, a place I know pretty well. And because I know the setting, and because of what the themes of the story are, the desert is a character too and my story is richer because of this. But what of the places I write about but have never been? I am not a believer of the adage “write what you know” because writing, to me, is a way to know, a way to work through new ideas, learn new things. But how many times have you come across something that feels researched, like a page from Wikipedia, and you just want to write “stick to what you know” in red marker across the book’s pages and give it back to the author? I’ve just read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s  A Study in Scarlet, in which the second part makes a detour to the American midwest; as the editor points out, some things are grossly exaggerated, a common trait, at that time, of Europeans discussing American geography. But is it still good reading? Oh, it’s excellent. George R. R. Martin writes like he lived in the time of kings, castles, and knights (even if it does have his own supernatural twists), though he claims that his capacity for such a believable portrayal of a medieval alternate universe comes from reading. A lot of reading. Likewise, everyone assumes Emily Dickinson was a shut in, yet her writing reflects some of the most profound observations and analyses of human nature and life that have ever been written. Is this just the breadth of her mind? Her aspiration to knowledge and understanding? Or maybe she actually got out more than people know.

What do you guys think? Is it okay for a writer to write about places they’ve never been*? Or is it unrealistic to think any writer can be great without being well-traveled, without having stepped outside his or her place of “throwness”?

*This may exclude settings/worlds composed entirely of fantasy, but it could lead into an entirely different topic of discussion. For if our knowledge and capacity for imagination are composed of our experiences, then perhaps even fantasy or sci-fi authors should be concerned with this question of dissonance between experience and writing place.

10 thoughts on “The Dissonance Between Experience and Writing Place”

  1. “What you know” is probably the most misinterpreted “advice” writers get. Can you read a book and know the subjects and locations in that book? Maybe not intimately, like you know the Mojave desert, but you can learn. Research is important, even for fiction stories. Movies and books can be just as good as traveling for you to know something. Not as great for the tiny details, but more than enough for you to recreate it in a story. Our perspectives grow as we learn, not from locations. Going to those locations only grow our perspectives because you’re “hopefully” learning along the journey.

    Yes, physically going to every location you want to write about would be ideal, but that’s not realistic for everyone. As long as your mind can experience it, you “know” it.

  2. I totally agree with John, and I would add that experience comes more from living a full emotional life than from traveling — at least for me. Traveling definitely inspires me (and boy do I want to visit some of the more exotic settings I’ve researched and written about), but it isn’t a necessary requirement for creating a setting that is vivid and immersive. I think one thing that’s true is that different people experience real places in different ways. The woods might be calming and peaceful to some but haunting and unnerving to others. We can really take any setting and spin it any way we want. So while experiencing is a nice bonus, writing your own “take” on a location seems perfectly logical to me.

    1. “…[E]xperience comes more from living a full emotional life than from traveling”; love this, Annie! I realize now that I might have come off as whiney and worrisome, but really I was trying to just pose the question just as you’ve put it here: is it a “necessary requirement”? And I love this point about setting as exemplified by people’s reactions to the woods (oddly they are both for me 🙂 ). Thanks, Annie!

  3. So in my experiences as a wannabe, I can honestly say that though I’ve always had the urge to travel and experience the exotic, my lack of doing so has never tripped me up in my writing. I do research when necessary, but have never worried about the authenticity of the experience I’m creating for readers. However, I do notice that in most of the locations I make up, whether fantasy or not, a lot of aspects of the place I live do find their ways in one way or another. For instance, the bluffs or the river. They may not be the same places as they exist in the real world, but I bring the emotional significance into my writing. Honestly, I don’t think it matters as long as your intention isn’t to specifically tell a story about a real place. It wouldn’t be cool to write a book about living in France if you’ve never been there. As they say, it’s the journey not the destination. I guess it’s a fine line though, because you don’t want your writing to seem trite. But I agrees with Ms. Neugebaur in the fact that putting your character in a specific forest matters a whole lot less then the purpose that forest serves, whether to mystify or terrify. I think you should travel no matter what anyway. Just to get the cool stamps in your passport.

    1. Every place you write, whether fantasy or not, has pieces of you in it, pieces of the places where you lived and experienced life. I like that. Emotional significance is all a girl could ask for over here. And maybe an eventual trip overseas would be nice. 🙂 Thanks for this!

  4. It was fun reading this for the first time today, almost three years after you wrote it, knowing how far you’ve “traveled” since. Some travels have been literal (like a certain trip to a certain horror conference, for one) and others have been those emotional journeys that Annie mentioned (like becoming a mother). I’m happy to, in a small way, be traveling the writing path with you. 🙂

    1. It’s funny to look back on this post and see these insecurities with different eyes. Do I still want to travel? Yes! (More more more!). But I do feel more confident (and maybe a bit less idealistic) in my ability to convey place without requiring the literal experience of place. And that emotional journey definitely changes the prospect of a literal journey–I cannot imagine traveling anywhere with these two toddlers in tow! Thanks for riding with me, Juettner. 🙂


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