Monday, March 26, 2012

Kate Coursey on Drawing from Life Experience

One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever received was, “Write what you know.” To some extent, I think this is true. Your thoughts and emotions in real life should always inform your writing. However, I’ve heard this advice used multiple times as a reason why teenagers, with their lack of so-called life experience, can’t write publishable material.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that life experience varies from person to person, and not necessarily based on age. In 2010 I spent the summer in Africa, and I guarantee you that many of those Kenyan children have more life experience than your average American adult. They take care of younger siblings, tend farms, haul water several miles each day, and endure starvation during dry years. They cope with physical pain in ways we can’t imagine. And when it comes down to it, only memoir writers truly adhere to the rule “write what you know.” For us fiction-writers, some of it has to come from the imagination. It’s the intersection between imagination and reality that makes a truly fantastic book.

Take Suzanne Collins, one of our generation’s most popular writers. I enjoyed Hunger Games as much as the next person. Now, did Suzanne actually experience a fight to the death broadcasted on national television in a dystopian North America? Doubtful. But I’m sure she drew from her own life experiences when she wrote about Katniss’s emotions and fears. In a sense, I think the “write what you know” rule is fatally flawed. Most of us don’t have interesting enough lives to write only what we know. It’s the bits and pieces, the most basic human emotions, that really make a story come to life.

Brooke asked me to write a post about being a young author. In addressing other teenaged writers, I say this: don’t let “lack of life experience” hold you back. Life experience is measured not necessarily in years, but in how you’ve utilized your time. I know many writers are solitary, introspective people, but every once in a while it’s necessary to break out of your shell. Do something crazy. Have an adventure. Go on a trip, or try a new sport, or have a conversation about a hot-button issue with someone who disagrees. If you’re Christian, find someone who’s Buddhist or Wiccan and ask them to talk about their faith (perhaps even consider attending a session of worship). Older writers possess an inherent advantage in that they’ve had more time to experience the world. In order to make up for this, you must be attentive and curious and active in your search for knowledge. Try to look at the world from different perspectives.

There is no reason why a young author can’t write something publishable. Just remember that all fiction authors draw from their imaginations as well as real-life experiences, and therefore you should seek out new ways to broaden your mind.

Find Kate At: Blog | Twitter

About Kate Coursey: I'm a 19-year-old YA Fantasy writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. I am represented by Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh & Otis.

I'm addicted to soy chai lattes and frozen yogurt and calorie-laden Mexican food. My goal is to streak on all six continents (there's no way I'm going to Antarctica...way too cold). So far I've got North America and Africa under my belt...four more to go.


  1. I don't think a younger person is any less qualified to write than an older person. Sure, us oldies may have more life experience but we don't have the monopoly on emotions and feelings - or imagination :-)

  2. Great post! :) I love seeing so many "young" writers around the blogosphere.

  3. I'd have to say some folks might use the "write what you know" bit to downplay young writers as "not experienced enough" the way one would rip one verse of scripture from text and completely misinterpret the meaning, bending it to their point.

    I suppose since I write about faeries, vampires and zombie wights, I have a good reason for understanding that "writing what you know" isn't something to adhere to in letter but in spirit. I don't claim to know Vampire LeStat, but I'm intrigued by his tale, by vampires, by the undead. I'm intrigued about persons from other places and with a bit of imagination, I can "write what I know" inserting some things I have experienced in life, just as a young, vivacious or angsty teen can.

    I wonder if it should be "write what you love" instead of "write what you know".

  4. I think that when people said "Write what you know" that it was meant more as an idea that the author should write about what intrigues them because the authenticity of their interest will pour into the writing. So maybe, it's important for writers to have highly focused interests or to take interest in the world because that will always have an effect on what you write. Kate, you are so wise :) Thanks for this post.

  5. Ah, I love all the "young" writer love. ^^

    Personally, I think the advice should be "write what you want to write and write what feels right."

  6. We have all experienced every emotion, although the circumstances behind the emotions may differ. So, in this way, we all "write what we know" when we allow ourselves to feel those emotions. Writers are unique in that everything we experience can be used in our work. Our joy, pain, anger, and excitement can serve us material.