There is an old adage that good writing must be about what you know. It’s been around so long it’s virtually a cliché.
But it’s also true. I posted last week about the methods Ernest Hemingway used to convey authenticity through writing style. But that wasn’t the only way he gave his work the ‘real feel’. He also wrote about what he knew.
That’s not to say that authors have to write of exact experiences. Some do – I’m thinking Jack Kerouac. But more usually, experience informs the writing – it becomes abstracted, part of the tapestry. And because that underlying experience is real, it gives the writing a sense of authenticity.
Hemingway was an adventurer, and his inspiration was the hard edge of the human condition. One of his key shaping experiences was the collision between his First World War and his personality – a moment of frisson. He served with the ambulance corps in Italy in 1918, and from that emerged Farewell To Arms. His drive to find ‘real’, to nail the harshness of the human condition, was pushed by that war. Life in post-war Paris lent depth. So did time in Spain.
Hemingway was not alone. A lot of my professional historical work has gone into showing how the First World War changed people – one of my books on the New Zealand experience is being used as a university text, I believe. The war gave the twentieth century its social and political direction – threw a lot of trends into fast-forward. An awful lot of literature came out of the same cauldron.
One of the best examples was J. R.R. Tolkien. Middle Earth – and The Lord Of The Rings – was written from life experience on many levels. His life as a scholar and philologist shows. And he also wrote from his First World War and his experience with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers.
I’ve posted before about how the descriptions Tolkien gave of places such as Mordor, of orc talk and battles, were riffs on the Western Front. The Dead Marshes were an exact description of the Ypres trench evironment, where men fought in stinking swamps amidst corpses.
Tolkien also used that experience conceptually. It emerged, for instance, in his repeated motif of extended life – those without long life were jealous of those whose lives flowed into the future. This was a reflection of front-line soldier attitudes, whose own lives might be measured in seconds, minutes or hours. To them, normal lifespan was an endless future. Tolkien, in short, infused his experiences into his ideas. Even readers who had not lived through the First World War could sense the authenticity. That is one of many reasons why Tolkien’s work struck such a chord.
Experience, then, can become a powerful way of creating depth and reality. Sometimes it can even happen without authors doing it consciously.
Do you find your experiences working their way into your writing?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012