Do you have to have experienced something to be able to write about it?

“At this rate, I’d be lucky if I wrote a page a day.
Then I knew what the problem was.
I needed experience.
How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?” 

Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath

Do you have to have experienced something to be able to write about it? Or, to rephrase, do you have to have experienced something to be able to write effectively about it? I can completely understand the sentiment behind Plath’s words here – it can be difficult, sometimes, to imagine what life for one of your own characters must be like when they are experiencing something that you haven’t. And when you know there are writers out there who are drawing on their own experiences, like the girl who had adventures among the pygmies in Africa, it sometimes seems inevitable that there will always be someone writing something that is better than your efforts.

So, what to do? Go out and have some amazing experiences? Book a trip to Africa and live among the pygmies for a few weeks? I suppose you could do that, if you had the time and the money and the inclination. But, if you came home and wrote a story about it, would it automatically be brilliant, simply because you had been there? Does having the actual experience of something suddenly make someone a better writer?

And what about the stories that are written about experiences that it would be difficult to orchestrate? Committing a crime, for example.  A writer could commit a crime if they wanted to (I personally don’t want to – just as a disclaimer), and only then would they really know what it was like, but it wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. Or, say, if I wanted to write about flying to the moon – it’s pretty unlikely that I would be able to have that experience, so I would have to rely on research and my own imagination. But not many other people out there are going to have the opportunity to fly to the moon either, so in some ways, it might not matter.

Perhaps the point Plath was really making here was about life experience. No doubt she never intended to have an adventure with pygmies in Africa, or anything so grand or unusual, but writing about life requires life to have been lived to some degree.  She talks about experience in general – not really about something specific. I don’t think it’s a requirement that to write effectively about one particular thing, you have to have experienced it. But it comes across when the writer in question doesn’t have a passion for what they are writing about.

What do you think? Do you have to have experienced something to be able to write about it? Does having real life experience of a particular event make you a better writer?

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