On writing from experience

I don’t know what English bluebells smell like, and it’s driving me crazy.

As part of my novel-in-progress, I’m researching the folklore and mythology of plants. According to every source I’ve read, the scent of bluebells is sweet, delicate and unforgettable … for those who have actually smelt it.

I’ve had to make do with bluebell-scented perfumes, puzzling over how to reconcile these smells with the descriptions from my research. Will my readers suspect that I’ve never encountered the real thing? And if they do, will this imposture deflate the entire fictional world I’ve conjured so painstakingly?

‘Write what you know,’ the cliché goes – but is that because we write more confidently about familiar topics, or because readers locate literary merit in biographical authenticity? Authors are constantly asked whether the events they depict have really happened to them; reviewers grope for correspondences between characters and their author.

Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, was one of the first novels to draw legitimacy from perceptions of first-person experience; its earliest audiences believed it was Crusoe’s actual memoir, although Daniel Defoe had made the whole thing up.

By 1814, Lord Byron was adding defensive footnotes to The Corsair: ‘The time in this poem may seem too short for the occurrences, but … the reader must be kind enough to take the wind as I have often found it.’

Writers obviously bring their imagination and curiosity to subjects outside of their immediate experience. Yet ‘method research’ is still commonplace. We spend time in the places where our protagonists live, replicate their sensations with our own bodies and learn their skills. Or, in the gonzo tradition, we infiltrate their subcultures and take their drugs.

British writer Rachel Cusk goes even further, asserting in The Guardian that ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’. Cusk finds the whole idea of fiction ‘fake and embarrassing. Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.’

The ultimate expression of this impulse is the confessional memoir essay. Indeed, some people understand personal angst to be intrinsic to the essay genre. It isn’t.

Aldous Huxley, in prefacing a collection of his own essays, argues that some essayists ‘do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme,’ while others, straying further still from observable phenomena, ‘do their work in the world of high abstractions.’

Our experiences undoubtedly shape our subjectivities. But I utterly reject the notion that our literary merit depends on our willingness to narrate them. Nor do personal experiences carry more moral weight than fictional ones, or necessarily inspire greater empathy in the reader.

I’m with Plato, who felt catharsis encourages people to wallow uncritically in their emotions.

And I’m with Maria Tumarkin, who, in a brilliant 2014 Griffith Review essay, demolished the glibness of our culture’s compulsion to transmute life experiences into ‘stories’.

We should feel especially disquieted by the way journalism has come to depend upon performative self-abjection when covering social issues – especially in the satanic online content mills where many emerging writers labour.

A decade ago, Emily Gould, then coeditor at Gawker, popularised a garrulous, unguarded style that disapproving commentators called ‘oversharing’. ‘But now,’ Gould tells Slate’s Laura Bennett, ‘an editor will be like, can you take this trending topic and make it be about you?’

Instead of competing to pitch the most compelling idea, writers now compete to recall their grimmest experiences. And Bennett believes this slippage shows: ‘So many of these recent essays make a show of maximal divulgence, but are too half-baked and dashed-off to do the work of real introspection.’

But while we question the wisdom of what to share, we rarely challenge the legitimacy of personal experience itself. Perhaps that is why authors so frequently draw on their own lives: readers find it credible.

I was recently scanning through Goodreads reviews for Emily Bitto’s The Strays and noticed that several readers found her 1930s period setting vague and unconvincing. (Clearly, the 2015 Stella Prize judges did not agree.) My novel is set in 1920 and I’ve been paranoid about getting every single period detail unimpeachably right. But I can’t be sure; like Bitto, I can’t travel back in time.

While exhaustive archival research might produce factual accuracy, it doesn’t always ring true. So, what produces literary truth? Is it, perhaps, writing what the reader knows – like the scent of English bluebells?

Maybe not, says Christian Lorentzen. In an essay at Vulture, Lorentzen discusses Joan Didion, who built a cult following by glorifying her own experiences. Lorentzen doesn’t share them: ‘I don’t know what jasmine smells like. I can’t distinguish organdy from other forms of cotton.’ But, for Lorentzen, this doesn’t matter. What draws him to Didion is the compulsive readability of her prose – not as ‘identification, aspiration, emotion, or taking her words as Gospel truth, but an attraction of attention.’

Didion famously aphorised that ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’. But perhaps we might win over readers not with our (or their) presence in the story, but with our conviction in its telling.

Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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