Your life experiences — exhilarating and tedious, mundane and magnificent — should inform your written work. Channel your emotions and use descriptive details to make your story-world come alive.
One of my favorite aspects of writing fiction is that, creatively speaking, everything matters. Any experience — no matter how large or small, seemingly insignificant or hugely frustrating — can serve as inspirational jet fuel the next time you sit down to write. One recent experience showed me just how powerful this dynamic can be.
I live in Manhattan and sometimes drive out of the city on weekends. As anyone who has tried this will tell you, navigational options are not great; whatever direction you choose, chances are you’ll hit a major choke point as avalanches of vehicles try to pass through molehill-sized exits. If you leave the island, say, at midnight on a Tuesday, you’ll likely cruise on through. Friday afternoon is a different game.
To me, the weekend rush approach to one particular exit point, the Lincoln Tunnel in midtown Manhattan, exposes a fascinating and raw spectrum of human qualities.
The devil begins in the design. Built decades ago, the arteries that transport cars into the Lincoln Tunnel, as well as the tunnel itself, are woefully incapable of handling the massive volume of vehicles that currently push through. Entry ramps are constrictive, streets are pockmarked, lights are ill-timed, and the entire paradigm seems optimized to promote gridlock and frustration rather than efficiency and safety.
This ugly infrastructure leads to ugly driver behavior. Many cars, eager to gain an extra foot before someone else takes it away, pull into intersections well aware that they will be unable to clear them before lights change; this further gunks up traffic, amps up frustration for all involved, and invites cascading amounts of similar behavior.
Also, many drivers do not merge safely into the lanes that actually exit into the tunnel from the major avenues that feed it. Instead, these daredevils scoot down in non-exit lanes before stabbing in last-minute, creating dangerous situations, in front and behind, and stoking rage amongst drivers who “do the right thing” by merging earlier and waiting their turn.
Yet somehow, eventually, all drivers squeeze through the old tube, the process resets to repeat, and life goes on.
After clearing the city during my most recent trip, I quickly forgot about the frustration of navigating zombie vehicles and crumbling infrastructure. But the experience bubbled up unexpectedly when I next sat down to work on my novel-in-progress.
The chapter I was re-writing featured a female protagonist traveling to a different city for a momentous meeting with another character who terrifies her. She doesn’t know what will happen, what will be discussed, or even why she was summoned to the meeting, but she has no choice but to go.
As I tried to pour life into her character — rather than just saying some version of “she felt really nervous as she got closer” — I found myself, first unconsciously and then consciously, drawing from my experience leading up to the Lincoln Tunnel. I remembered how I felt, physically and emotionally, when a bus squirmed by my car in a lane that didn’t exist, almost squeezing us against the unmoving wall of vehicles to our right, and tapped similar feelings as my heroine headed towards her ominous coffee date. When I was polishing a scene where she is four hours into her journey and simultaneously can’t wait for it to be over and wishes it never started, I peppered my writing with thoughts and feelings inspired by ones that I had as my car waded into the pre-tunnel swamp on Tenth Avenue.
When I read the chapter back the next day, I was surprisingly satisfied with my work. It felt fresh, vivid, engaging, and real. Without my experience at the tunnel as a reference, I don’t know if I could have shaped that scene to be quite so immediate and alive.
To be clear, the experiences I had in reality and those that my character had in fiction are far from parallel. Some elements are shared — vehicles, travel, and some level of danger, for starters — but many other aspects are vastly different. The important factor here was looking, at a high level, at my own experiences and referencing what could breathe power, spirit, and truth into the material I was writing. And the Lincoln Tunnel experience did the job perfectly.
Whenever I encounter a situation that I would rather not have to encounter, I try to remind myself that it’s not wasted. Moments of boredom, pain, suffering, and sadness can all fill your writing with the reality it needs to shine.
One final point: It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, to be a great artist of any sort, one must suffer greatly and that self-destructive or masochistic activities, by their nature, deepen one’s artistic practice. I’ve never believed this to be true. Everyday life offers never-ending creative fodder of all sorts. For me, the true art comes from absorbing your own experiences, however large or small or explosive or mundane they may be, and translating them into something powerful on the page in front of you.
What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.
The Writing That Leads To Your First Novel
Sensory Language IS The Detail In Your Writing
Use Sensory Language To Make Your Writing Come Alive
How to find inspiration
Do You Keep A Short Fiction Journal?