One of the first tips any experienced author will hand down to a budding scribe is: “write about what you know”. Letting your personal experience guide your writing is not only the easiest way to get words onto the page, but the best way to make your passages meaningful, insightful and highly engaging. Indeed, over the years some of the best writers in the world have used their own lives as the basis for both fiction and non-fiction classics and that’s something every aspiring artist should take note of.
Although you shouldn’t be looking to absorb the lives of these people and build them into your own work, you should see their strategies as ways to enhance your writing and craft something worth reading. While we don’t have the space to run through every author that’s ever used their own life for the purposes of a book, we do have ample room to outline some of the finest. Again, while this list isn’t definitive, it should give you some idea of the authors that have turned experiences into words.
A Sweet Dream: Roald Dahl
While he may not have actually encountered a big friendly giant in his youth, Dahl did use his childhood experiences as a platform for his most famous books. One of the author’s most famous stories, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was reportedly inspired by a local sweetshop. According to Dahl’s anecdotes, his childhood was a relatively disturbed affair with little to smile about. However, his daily trips to and from school provided a window of light in the form of a sweetshop.
Every day he would gaze at the shop through the window as he passed by, dreaming of the tasty treats that were stored inside. Fast-forward a few years and that same sweetshop became a beacon of light for Charlie Bucket. Unable to afford as many sweets and chocolate as every other child, Charlie eventually catches a break, visits the famous Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory and becomes its owner.
Although Dahl used his creative license to turn a simple journey into a complete story, it’s clear to see how that early experience, complete with raw emotions, helped him craft one of the most famous stories of our time.
The Chinese Way: Amy Tan
Tan is a highly successful Asian author who uses many of her own life experiences to imbue her books with a sense of realism and authority. When asked if she planned to write any books without Chinese people in them, she pondered the question and speculated about writing her characters from a male perspective. Despite saying she feels she could do it, and do it well, she simple asked, “Why would I?” Like many authors, Tan doesn’t write for any other reason than for herself and her personal message.
Not wanting to simply put together a story in order to sell more books, Tan states that the process of writing should be authentic and to do that it should come from your own life and experiences. To do anything else would not only be disingenuous but less engaging and entertaining.
Numbers and Experience: Greg Elder
Away from the world of fiction, one of the best, if not the only way, to write about a topic authoritatively is to have experience in the subject. Elder is a former professional poker player and blackjack expert and many of his works have come from this background. Because both poker and blackjack both have deep roots in the world of mathematics, odds and statistics, there really is no other way to write about the subjects in any real capacity without having experienced them firsthand.
Fortunately, Elder has a penchant for numbers and he used this throughout his career as a player to win thousands of dollars in both blackjack and poker and now he uses those experience to enlighten others. Like all theories, blackjack and poker strategies need to be tested in the real world because something on paper doesn’t necessarily equate to success in real life. Elder knows this and that’s why his books, such as A Winning Gambling Strategy… And How to Get It, are hugely popular among casino fans.
In fact, because of the way Elder writes, you don’t have to be a gambling expert to gain some value from his work. If you’re a novice gambler that doesn’t know what splitting or doubling down means, it doesn’t matter because Elder takes people through the basics and makes everything seem simple and uncomplicated. This ability to breakdown a topic down is only possible if the writer has an intricate knowledge of the subject. It’s often said that the sign of an expert is someone who can condense their field down into a few sentences and make it easy for the layman to understand. This is exactly what Elder does in his books and the reason they are popular among professional gamblers and those aspiring to go pro.
Memories of Survival: Gary Paulsen
Another writer that used his life to pen some classic novels is Gary Paulsen. Having been drafted into the army, Paulsen spent three years doing jobs and seeing things that very few people normally would. This exposure to hostile environments and potential death on a daily basis has formed the basis of many novels by many authors over the years. To try and write about war without having lived through it is, at best, tricky and, at worst, disrespectful to those who have. Although war is never a good thing, the life experiences it creates are something that can’t be ignored and that fuel writers such as Paulsen.
Paulsen’s Hatchet is something of a testament to his time in the army and the great outdoors. Having learned a number of survival skills during his service, Paulsen was able to put these into words and create the novel. Telling the story of a young boy whose plane crashes in the Canadian forest, the novel charts the protagonist’s quest for survival through real life scenarios and literary reflections. Although Paulsen was never stranded in the wild, he was able to use his experience of something similar to give Hatchet a true sense of authority.
Ultimate Self-reflection: Autobiographies
Of course, the most obvious example of a writer penning a book from personal experience is the autobiography. Although the genre has been somewhat abused in recent years by pseudo-famous “celebrities” (and some real celebrities) with very little to say but a huge marketing budget, a well written autobiography can be highly engaging. For example, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is a 50,000-word letter to Lord Alfred Douglas about his life in jail. Examining his external surroundings and internal thoughts, the book is as much of a literary triumph as it is an autobiography.
One of the most important historical documents in English history, Samuel Pepys’ diaries is also written in a similar style to Wilde’s autobiography. Without his accounts of London life during the 17th-century we would have very little first-hand information about the Great Fire of London. Thanks to his diligent note taking and ability to put his thoughts onto paper, we have an insight into how the devastating fire took hold of London and almost brought the city to its knees.
The Writer vs. the Author
Writing from personal experience is by far the best way an author can create something people will want to read. As Tan has said, writing with the intention of selling books is disingenuous and a recipe for disaster. While it’s certainly possible to simply write something with little intrinsic value and sell millions of copies, that isn’t something a budding author should aspire to do.
Being an author is about more than simply writing words on a page (or computer screen). An author should be able to tell a story and breakdown a certain aspect of life from their own perspective. Each piece of writing should entertain and illuminate in equal measure, regardless of whether it’s a non-fiction guide to playing blackjack or a story about survival in the Canadian wilderness. Every book needs to have the power to stand on its own as a work of authority from someone’s perspective and the only way to do this as an author is to write about what you know.
Understanding What You Know
Now this is very different from writing about what you think you know. Just because you’ve experienced something in life, it doesn’t mean you know all there is to know about it. For example, just because you once played poker, it doesn’t mean you can write a book about it explaining how to take on the best players in the world. However, what you will be able to write about from that experience is the game of poker from your perspective. The emotions you felt, the physical feeling of being at the table, how the game influenced future aspects of your life; all these things are what you would take away from the game and use to write something with.
This distinction between knowing and thinking you know about something is crucial and a trap any budding author should avoid. Roald Dahl was no more an expert on sweets than you or I; however, his memory of a small shop gave him a rush of feelings that he was then able to turn into a hit novel. It’s having the ability to identify these sorts of emotions and pick them out that separates a writer from an author.
“Write what you know” is by far the best piece of advice you can keep in mind when you’re about to write a new book; however, it’s important to understand what you know and only use that knowledge to shape your work. As Tim Pilcher says, “Write what you know, and if you don’t know it, be passionate about it and do the research! “