Writing from experience

3rd January 2015

I have been re-reading one of my favourite books on writing, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and thinking about the process of writing as a form of responsiveness: to the moment, to experience, and to challenges. We write for so many reasons, to express and explore the different facets of our lives, past, present and possible.

I remember vividly and with a shudder a “composition” which I wrote for my English class when I was 13. In those days I was obsessed with the French Revolution, reading up about it and devouring the Scarlet Pimpernel novels. When we were given writing homework with the tired old title, “What I did in the holidays”, I wrote a story from the perspective of a young French aristocrat who had arrived back from school to find that her entire family had bene carted off ot the guillotine. The story was full of the clichés and hyperbole of a 13-year old, but it certainly didn’t deserve the mark of zero which my English teacher gave it.

This teacher was a large elderly woman indifferent to young people and in love with the sound of her own voice. She read Romeo and Juliet to us in its entirety, taking all the parts, stopping only to spoon yoghurt into her pendulous mouth and to make sarcastic comments about anybody who squirmed or fidgeted. I am surprised to this day that my love of Shakespeare survived this ordeal. The best thing she did for us was to go on “long leave”, which meant that another teacher took over for the second half of the school year. As if to compensate, this was the inspiring teacher that all children deserve. Without her encouragement, I doubt that literature, writing and teaching would have played such a prominent part in my life.

So why did I received nul points for my essay on my last holidays? Because I didn’t write “from experience”? I wonder about that now. What does it mean to write from experience? Does it have to be the banal and everyday? Was I in fact writing from my experience of reading and learning, weaving this into my text?  I need to point out that my foray into historical fiction ended at that point, so I have never explored this idea any further.

What’s your take on “writing from experience”?



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