“Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”
“You had to be there.”
“You don’t know how it feels…”
Writing about something and living through something are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to experience. We can try to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one or win the lottery, but there’s no real substitute for actually experiencing it.
Sure, as writers we’ve got to go places we’ve never been before. The science fiction genre wouldn’t exist without us exploring places and ideas that belong in the future. However, as much as you pepper a moment with what it must be like, it’s manufactured from similar emotions or memories. This is the challenge… writing in a compelling, honest and vulnerable way that transposes real emotion and memories into a scene.
Nurturing our empathetic side, we can explore some of the pain, sorrow and joy associated with character-building life events. However, writing from the heart and writing vicariously are two distinct styles. Contrast the experience of a person who survives falling from a cliff face to someone who had a bungee cord to snap them away from danger.
It’s the intimate challenge, facing death, coping with pain, waiting for help that may never come and a whole range of emotion that doesn’t settle in when you’re synthesizing the idea of falling without the consequences.
Conversely, while memories are powerful, we can get wrapped up in the emotion. I remember writing a school essay about my father and I visiting Grandpa Jack for the last time. I left tear drops on those pages, delivering what I thought was stirring and deeply profound. While the emotion was very real to me and I wrote with an open heart, it was ultimately too sentimental. Imagine my expression when my teacher pointed this out to me with a few careless slashes of their red pen.
While the temptation is to invest our memories in our writing without reserve, we need to find a balance. As The Three Wells of Screenwriting author, Matthew Kalil, suggests… our writing is deeper and more meaningful when we combine aspects from memory, imagination and external sources.