William Faulkner once said that “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”
It is a fascinating quote, for serval reasons.
First off, Faulkner starts off like he is saying an unbreakable rule, that a writer needs experience, observation, and imagination.
And logically that makes sense. Yes, you need to actually live your life to be able to write well, and you need to be an observant person to write well, and finally, you need to have an imagination to write well.
But, then he explains that two of those traits can supply for the lack of the others.
Then, he even says that one of those traits is enough to make up for the others.
It is a genius quote because: It lays out the rules but gives you permission to break them!
Writing With Experience
When a writer has experience, it shows. The work feels real. There is a grounding to it. I think of the Kite Runner, where the writer really did live in Afghanistan during that time.
When you write something from experience, you have confidence in what you are saying. You know what happened, you saw what happened, and most importantly, you felt what happened.
Before I dropped out of university, I had a creative writing teacher who said the most gripping short story he had read all year was from a student who had escaped a country that had gone through some form of civil war.
He explained how the writing was technically crude, but the fact it had happened and was real-life made it powerful, more powerful than any other short story he had encountered throughout the year.
And it makes sense.
If you witnessed a madman gun down five pedestrians, your “just the facts” retelling of the story will be far more interesting than the majority of fiction out there.
And then, we can take that to the next logical step. If you are a fashion designer and know all about the fashion world, when you write about a character who is trying to get into modeling, the whole situation is endowed with a sense of realism.
The smooth calm of an author who knows what he is talking about is like sailing across the ocean on a gentle breeze for the reader. There is a sense of safety, a sense of “yes, this guy knows what he is doing.”
That’s the value of experience. If you are writing fiction, it grounds it, and helps the reader believe it.
For me, writing from experience is both my weakest of the three traits and my less favorite.
Writing From Observation
Seeing how people tick is fascinating. One simple look, or a few words, can create a spark of a character in your mind.
More than that, when you live, you observe. You see how people behave around you, how they act on TV, how society is around you.
Writing from observation brought us works like 1984, The Lord Of The Flies, and the Bonfire Of The Vanities.
When a writer put his emphasis on observation, he is making us have an honest look at ourselves. He shows us aspects of our society that we may not want to see, or parts of the human condition that are uncomfortable to us.
We see the real world reflected in his work, and we see real elements of ourselves.
I enjoy writing from observation. When you get an understanding of how something works, and then recreate that in your story world, it feels amazing, like copying a piece of code from somewhere and then putting it on your website and seeing it work.
The observationist writer takes snippets from here and there, cutting snippets from the fabric of human existence so he can weave them into his story.
It isn’t uncommon to see characters represent whole ideas, to see the plot take a back seat when compared with setting, character and concepts.
The observationist writers are nearly always well-read, intelligent and logical.
While I do say writing from observation is an important part of my work, it isn’t what I put the most emphasis on.
Writing From The Imagination
Now, here’s the real juice of it.
Our experiences are limited, and if we rely solely on them, then our stories become limited. I think of Steve Job’s sister, whose novels seem to be totally about her life and the people she knew, with no daring to imagine something beyond.
And, with observation, if it is the sole trait of the writing, it runs the risk of being cold, calculated and detached. People can read science papers whenever they want to, but when it comes to a good story, they want to feel it as well as understand it.
I think it is rare for a writer to write totally from an experience perspective, or totally from an observation perspective, or totally from an imagination perspective.
Really, there’s a combination, but with me at least, the one of the three traits that gets the emphasis is the imagination side of things.
When you read something well-crafted that is written with an emphasis on imagination, you really do feel like you are in another world.
The classic example of this is J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. The scope of it all, the languages, the characters, the flow and the general feeling of adventure, of wisdom and of a world that is not our own, it is a shining example of imagination.
When a writer writes mainly from his imagination, he draws on a source that is not himself.
He is not writing about his personal experiences, he is not writing about his personal observations. He is writing about a world that is beyond him.
This is the world of archetypes. Of the monomyth. Of things that are familiar yet unknown, things that are untold yet have always been known.
When we write from imagination, we draw upon the deep well of humanity that is innate within all of else, plunging a pail down into the depths in the hopes that we pull up a load of fresh, glistening water, of life.
When you write a story mainly from your imagination, it can be tiring when it isn’t working, but like a bout of beautiful madness when it is.
The connections that are made unconsciously, the feelings that are brought up by request and not by recall, and the visions, the visions that rule your night and make you daydream, that’s what imaginative writing so fucking addictive.
So, you can write well if you write purely from experience, or purely from observation, or purely from imagination.
Most times though, in a work of fiction, all of them are included. But, were the emphasis is put, that’s a different story.
For me, at least, it is imagination. For you, it may be something else.
Just know you have everything within you that you need to be a great writer. All it takes is a bit of consistency and the will to try.