Do you or don’t you? I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry this week – a skilful piece of writing that did exactly what it said on the tin, a page turner, tragic, vaguely comedic, emotional. I won’t give anything away, if you want a review then check-out what I post on Waterstones.
At the end of the book, Rachel Joyce explains how much of herself and her experiences have gone into the story and I was drawn to consider the above maxim. Last week another poem of mine, Behind The Pyramid was published on Poetry24 and I was asked about my own experiences of losing a child. I have none. How then did I write the poem? Does one need to have experienced something to write about it?
I do believe that as writers we bring ourselves to our work. It is through our lived experiences that we find our own, inimitable, voice. That we stamp our own style and self on our writing and yet, if we only wrote of what we ‘know’ then what would happen to science fiction? To fantasy? To crime? Are all crime novelists murderers on the sly?
I think it would be a mistake to restrict ourselves only to what we have experienced. As creative writers we owe it to the world to create, to make something new, to explore and expand reality. Michael Chricton was a great sci-fi writer. His novels felt real because he brought his vast knowledge of science to his fiction but then he took that all important next step; he expanded, drifted and created.
On an Open University course I wrote a screenplay exploring the lives of a teenage lad with Asperger Syndrome who planned to split the atom from his garden shed, a NEET youth (not in education, employment or training), an obese man and an elderly lady. Each character was plucked from news reports and town-centre observations. I collected hundreds of cuttings, YouTube clips and details. I was scared I may be raided or arrested as I searched for facts about explosives and splitting the atom (not such a rare hobby after all). I scoured the shelves of online chemical sellers, found uranium, plutonium, knew how much per gram. I researched methods of suicide, listened to a myriad song lyrics and watched daytime TV.
And I became worried; I feared that my screenplay would become a documentary. My tutor reassured me; pointed out that this wouldn’t happen because at some point I would finish my research and start to create. I would imagine these lives instead of reading about them. I would add the characters’ lived realities. My story would be born.
I was reminded about the tale of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man of which there are many versions, you can read a comprehensive list here but Olivier’s alleged final comment, ‘My dear boy, have you thought of just acting?’ is, I think, the real message for creative writers. You can (and indeed should) research as much as possible but then it must stop, the clippings and the videos and the interviews should be put to one side; what matters is just imagining, that is when we become creative writers.