Do you need lots of life experience to be a good writer?

When I was around sixteen I told my granddad I was going to be a writer when I left school. Whilst applauding my intentions, he said that to be a good writer I would have to live a little first. How I laughed.

Okay, so here was a man whose mother had given birth to thirteen children and died from exhaustion in middle age; whose father went on the Jarrow March; a self-educated man who loved books; a man who took up printing by trade; a man of strong principle who volunteered to fight in the Second World War even though he was past the age of conscription because he believed his generation was to blame; a man who, as a prisoner of war, was nearly killed by the allied bombing of Dresden; a man who later welcomed the marriage of his daughter to a German, taking up evening classes in the language so he could converse with the locals when he visited her; a man with a strong sense of community who became a Justice of the Peace and a local councillor and who founded the local branch of the Labour Party; a man who, at the time I was having this discussion with him, was nursing his wife of fifty odd years through the latter stages of Alzheimer’s.

What, in God’s name, did this man know about writing? I was the one with the A in English Language, right?

A discussion ensued during which I told him I didn’t need to know any more about life to be a great writer. It was all a question of imaginative power and eloquence. Why, I could write a novel about the sofa. He conceded that maybe I could write a novel about the sofa, but it wasn’t a novel he’d want to read. More fool him, huh?

There is a general rule of fiction that says character is revealed through experience. The more extreme the experience, the more is revealed. What is true of fiction is probably true of life. The more you experience, the more you discover about yourself and about other people; about humanity. It is these discoveries that the more experienced writers bring to their fiction.

The mistake I made in my argument with my granddad was to equate experience with material. They are not the same. Material, as I tried to tell him, is immaterial. What matters is how it is handled by the writer.

Let’s say my granddad and I are both awful writers. He writes a novel based on his life experiences. It’s boring as hell. I write a novel about the sofa. It’s a pile of pretentious crap.

Now let’s say we’re both literary geniuses. His life story suddenly becomes engaging, moving and profound. My sofa saga proves to be intriguing, offbeat and hilarious. Well done to us both.

Now, let’s say I nick his material. I write about his life experiences. I’m sixteen, I’m young, I’m inexperienced. Some of these emotions are going to be hard to realise. Some of life’s ironies are going to be lost on me. Nonetheless, I’m bloody good and I make a decent stab at it. I win the Booker.

Finally, let’s imagine my granddad, fellow literary genius that he is, brings all his life experiences to bear on a novel about a sofa.

Right there is the book I want to read.

The enigmatic protagonist

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8 Responses to Do you need lots of life experience to be a good writer?

  1. ChristieB says:

    Your grandfather sounds like a truly inspiring pereson – no wonder you are a good writer. And your blog pic of shoes fascinates me! As well as writing, which I think about more than do at the moment, I make short films. The odd thing is they all include ‘feet’ shots. My friends think I have a foot fetish – insane of course, I don’t even like shoes – but a quick shot of feet, walking, kicking, tapping, speaks volumes. Next time you watch a film, keep an eye out for the obligatory foot shot, they’re everywhere…but I seem to be the only one that notices!

    • claudia says:

      Hi Christie

      On my Facebook account (Claudia Cruttwell) I have a photo album of my feet at various locations. Don’t ask me why!

  2. Wendy says:

    I simply love your Granddad – what a great bloke! He would have got on very well with mine.

    • claudia says:

      Ah, thank you. He did lots of other cool things, like inviting children from the local children’s home to his daughters’ birthday parties each year. He was great with children and all my friends envied me. I’m glad you had a brilliant granddad too.

  3. Dan Glover says:

    Hi Claudia
    Being a grandfather to a seventeen year old girl who dreams of being a photographer (she’s really quite good at catching the right angles and light) I encourage her all I can. The experience will come with the years and there’s no sense rushing it… we all grow old soon enough as it is.

    In regards to my own writings, I shy away from the autobiographical and towards fiction. What I mean to say is, I use my experiences to construct characters and story themes that have little or nothing to do with my own life. At the same time, however, if my writings are doing what they’re meant to do, they allow the readers to come to know me by reading between the lines.

    There are great stories everywhere just waiting to be told… and while they are told through the lens of the writer’s experience they are also read through the filters of experience readers use to gauge a good piece of writing from a poor piece of writing.
    A writer must be engaging to engage the reader.

    I think your grandfather had good intentions… but at the same time if a person waits to write until they have lived a little, they are wasting precious time in gaining the experience writing affords. No one becomes a good writer just by living a little… they become good at writing by writing. Period. It seems tantamount to telling a musician they’ll never be good at playing music until they live a little.

    Thank you.

    • claudia says:

      Hi Dan. I totally agree. To become a good writer you have to practice and there is nothing to be gained by waiting. The older you get the more practice you accrue and that’s all part of the writer’s valuable experience.
      On the other hand, I do believe you can write brilliantly when very young and inexperienced. There are enough young authors in literary history to prove this.
      The post is somewhat inconclusive. The ideal, I guess, is a fusion of experience and imagination.
      Good luck to your granddaughter.

  4. martha says:

    Loved this post — your granddad sounds fabulous 🙂

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