At UCSD where I teach fiction writing, I meet many people who want to become writers, but who fear that they’ve gotten started too late in life. They might be former Superior Court judges, physics profs, academic secretaries, telephone linesmen, or “simply” mothers and housewives. Each feels that they “wasted time” before turning to writing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our life experiences inform our writing. Those people who leave high school and decide to “become a writer” are at a disadvantage: they don’t yet know life. It is the people you meet, the situations you encounter and survive, the temptations you face and overcome or give in to, the love you give and receive–all of these become the grist for your mill, the substance from which you create fiction.
Writing instructors teach that you should “write what you know,” but I find that limiting, in terms of subject matter. If you’ve never been a beekeeper, does this mean that you can’t write about beekeeping? Of course not. With the Internet, research is right at your fingertips. But what will give life to your research? Your knowledge of people, of relationships, of trials and tribulations. Beekeeping may be a subject in your book, but it alone won’t carry a story. It’s what you add to the beekeeping knowledge that will make your book come alive, and register as true in your readers’ minds.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about a female long-haul trucker. Have I done been a long-haul trucker? Never. But I can research the nitty-gritty details, and then populate the book with people I’ve known, personalities I’ve encountered, life situations that a trucker might face, and create a believable story based on my lived experiences. I may not have driven a truck, but I know the challenges a woman faces in a man’s world; I’ve known the fear, uncertainty, anger, and triumph that result from meeting those challenges. My experience will lend credence to the story.
The Superior Court judge doesn’t have to write legal stories. The world is wide open to him. What he’ll bring to the task is his understanding of humankind, of the human heart, and the power of love, lust, and the desire for filthy lucre. He might write a story set in the Pyrenees, a love story between a salesman and a barmaid. What does he know about any of that? What he doesn’t know, he can research. What he does know, about life, love, and longing, will make his writing masterful.
No experience in life is wasted when it comes to writing. All experience can be saved in your tool box, to be brought forth as needed.