One of the ongoing debates in the creative writing world surrounds creative writing programs vs. real-life experience. Can you learn writing by being in a classroom, or do you need to go live and have lots of varied experiences? This article from the Atlantic emphasizes the importance of having life experiences so that when you sit down to write, your stories are filled with meaningful characters and adventures. Reiner says:
“But what [creative writing programs] can’t do is provide writers with real-world experience and the perspective to make sense of it, without which there is no storytelling, there is no “editor I’m going to work with” giving the green light. Creative writing programs can teach you how to write, but they can’t teach you what to write. No instructor or Zellowship can transform you into a storyteller without experience strutting your ambition.”
I agree. While creative writing programs and workshops can be a great place to examine craft, they’re not going to give you ideas.
I don’t necessarily think people with more life experience write better stories. There are lots of people who have had compelling life experiences that would make amazing stories, but don’t have the skills to bring those stories alive in a complex, subtle way on the page. And there are people who have lived quiet, “ordinary” lives that see deeply into the human experience and have great perspective on their experiences. Some people have a knack for attuning themselves to character details and making emotional connections. These people can write at 16 and 35 and 52 and 97. They can certainly hone their skills over time, but I don’t think they necessarily need to wait for some magical length of time before they’re able to write stories.
Examples: Emily Dickinson wrote stunning poetry while being largely a recluse. I don’t think she had a lot of “life experience.” And Keats got all his writing in before he died at 25.
Basically, writing is different for everyone. There’s no age at which you’re “ready” to write amazing stories or experiences that will guarantee to make you a better writer. I’m a great believer in practice, not time or experience, making people better writers. Focus on your craft, where that’s in a formal workshop or at your own desk. No matter where you are, notice details and listen to people. Open yourself up to everyday experiences and making emotional connections. If you’re someone who already thinks of story ideas, those will come to you no matter where you are or how old you are.
Great truths here…
Nice post. Learning begins at birth and ends…..
Writing can only get better as we learn more about it.
thank you for this evocative post. “real life” experience is okay … but only with imagination can an artist believe something better can occur. tony
lovely post. i totally agree. Some have the knack of storytelling, some the knack for creating compelling characters without necessarily having been in the situation. I believe writing courses can teach you how to write, but in the end it’s a matter of whether you live to write, or write to live.
Great perspective on a dynamic matter! I’ve been debating pursuing an MFA, especially since my writing habits have fallen to the wayside since college. The prospect of cloistering myself away from the world for two to three years is equally appealing and terrifying.