I got to thinking about the term “life experience” last night, how we use it, and how the concept has and is changing. Then I got drunk on Devil rum and wrote about it.
Life experience is vital for a writer. I have very little interest in reading a novel written by the NYU grad with an MFA in creative writing who went directly from home, to college, to a rent-controlled apartment and an office job. I want to read the novel written by the guy who knows what it feels like to lose five teeth to a headbutt delivered by a Mississippi biker on homemade oxycontin.
He doesn’t have to be writing about that experience, but I find whatever he is writing will be better for having had it.
I recently spent the better part of a week in Vegas celebrating my 30th birthday. I like the city. I like people watching and occasional interacting on Fremont Street. I like gambling. I like the action. I love blackjack. A couple of trips ago I played my first official poker tournament. I took it seriously. Spent a lot of time on poker.dk building my game (I recommend learning poker from the Danes. They’re a savvy people. I also recommend learning Danish. It’s the language of the future. Whatever the Chinese tell you).
I tell people about all that and they’re interested. They have questions. They relate to the experience through times they’ve had in their life. Sometimes when I’m writing I recall the sights and sounds and smells and the visceral rush of a lot of those moments and incorporate them into a story. It’s useful life experience when entertaining and engaging others.
Following that thread, many years ago I lost a vintage motorcycle in a backroom poker game in New York City. That’s a cool story. To other people. I fucking loved that bike.
Telling a story about losing a comparable amount of money playing on-line poker, however, is not a cool story. Not even to other people. It doesn’t matter that your emotional response and memory of the experience might be the same. It often doesn’t matter if you’re talking to someone who has the same hobby. They simply don’t care.
The point is that as we experience more and more on-line and through gaming and social media and technology in general we risk losing the key to the Human subconscious. We risk losing the components that form a connective route to relating to our audience. This is especially important for a writer to consider.
But when we say a writer has to go out and live before they have a story to tell does that completely exclude the digital landscape? Even if you’re still interacting with people from all over the world? Even if you’re still risking? Even if your emotional and psychological take-away is the same?
To me it’s the difference between the internal and the external. That’s what most on-line experiences come down to: your internal response. They lack the tactile in any sense. They lack the color and detail of the world at large. They lack the stink of a visceral incursion with the real. And as prevalent as the digital becomes, as much its own culture as it becomes, we will always (probably) be physical creatures who live in a physical world and that world provides our strongest connections to everything we see and hear and read.
It’s ultimately important to remember bringing experience to your writing is different than conveying how that experience made you feel. Both are important elements, but for me a deep sense of place and time and reality can carry a scene or chapter that lacks deep feeling. A sense of real emotional without all of those other elements will often fall flat.
Ideally you want to bring both to your work.
But we are, none of us, perfect.