Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Unique Experience

My brother studied film in college. One of his teachers told him that all creative persons must have unusual histories on which they can draw. ( Assuming we all agree with the teacher,and I'm not assuming that at all, I'd have to ask what constitutes a sufficiently unique experience to work as a writer or movie maker or anything, but that's a discussion for another day.) He then handed out notebooks to the class and asked them to fill them as much as possible with the things that they thought made them unique.

To me, that sounds like a fantastic project, but my brother told me that most of his class had trouble with it. He said a lot of kids came in with half the notebook full or less. My brother filled his notebook. (Yes, I'm proud of that.) He said it was no sweat.

His grade: C-.

Why? The teacher didn't believe him. His exact words: "I don't believe your cousin ever taught a student named Dragon Boat."

Now, as someone who would never mind pointed out if her brother had lied, fabricated that story, or even stretched the truth, I can honestly raise my right hand and say, "True story." In fact, without trouble, I can pull up at least five minutes of true stories that most people would never believe actually happened. Hell, I could do five minutes on things somehow related to Canada that people would probably never believe. (Did you know I once convinced someone that on Canada Day, the whole of Canada comes together as one to herd beavers into the Plain Provinces, where we club them to death? I then explained that we skin them to use the pelts, store most of the meat for winter, and make Beaver Burgers, which are quite tasty and delicious. This person was horrified for five minutes before I explained that it wasn't true. Gullible is also written on the ceiling.)

You might imagine that I am unique in this uniqueness, but I maintain that this is not so. Every heard of the website My Life Is Average? While I personally hold that the site should be renamed My Life Is Surprisingly Weird, because none of these things are average, it is certainly an entertaining site. And it's proof that these things happen to people who aren't me.

My point, I guess, is this: Does a writer need to come from some sort of highly unique/different/unusual/unorthodox background in order to create? How important are you life experiences (particularly the odd ones) in your writing?

I personally doubt that J.K. Rowling channeled her years at a magical boarding school into Harry Potter or that Twilight is based on Meyer's relationship with a 117-year-old. However, who am I to determine how much of their life experiences entered the book. Zach Braff drew heavily on his own life when writing Garden State. It seems to vary.

How important are your life experiences is your creative process?


  1. I think our imagination is much more important than our life experiences. Life experiences are valuable in the sense that they shape us into who we are and thus how we write, but it is our imagination that comes up with the great ideas to write about.

    By the way, I had to write a short story in college about an actual event from my past. The teacher did not believe my story either. I'll admit that I embellished a tiny bit, but most of it was true. The embellishing is the imagination part coming out. It's what made the story more interesting.

  2. I think this goes right along with my "you can't make this shit up" theory. There are some things in life that are so random, so entertaining that no one could ever make them up. Personally, I love it when little details like that make their way into my writing. Adds a certain air of authenticity, no?

  3. LW -- I have to agree that imagination is the most important part. At least, that's how it's always been for. True, I couldn't deny that my experience slips in, but life as we know it hasn't prepared me for the things I write about.

    LnL -- I should like very much to hear more about the "You can't make this shit up" theory. It sounds true of a lot of writing. I think life can add authenticity where imagination adds unbelievability.

  4. Hey!
    While I would love to fall into the complete illusion that all writers are these tormented, love-sick, misogynistic geniuses who live in mysterious cabins deep in the woods of Maine, I know this is not so. I believe that everyone, no matter how much of a "normal" life they've lead, has experienced some odd situations. Writers draw upon these experiences, no matter how negligible they may seem, and embellish them into fantastic tales.
    Oh, and Lucas is a film major. Peter Jackson never traveled to Middle Earth and he's doing pretty well for himself.

  5. Tugger -- Well, I'm hope I don't have to become a tormented, love-sick misogynist to be great, but that's a pretty pervasive myth, with reason. And I really don't want to live in a cabin in Maine (sorry Maine).