by Denis Yurchikov
This will sort of relate to Tory's last post, but I'd like to take the age of MFA students and applicants into consideration when discussing "life experience." Now, one of our readers recently posted a blog entry about how she has no "life experience" and how she desperately needs "life experience" to be a more interesting writer. I want to take the opportunity to say that you don't need "life experience" to be a writer, or even to be a more interesting writer. I feel like the whole "life experience" shtick is part of the tendency to disregard both the young and the old. Thus, if you're entering an MFA program at 21 (which several of my fellow students at Hollins will be doing), you're deemed to have no "life experience," and if you're over, say, 40 or 45, you're looked at as too old to learn how to write, even though at that age, you should certainly have the "life experience" supposedly necessary to write.
I'm 25 now, but when I was still a wee 24 year old undergrad (just a few months ago), I was told to reconsider my decision to apply to MFA programs because I was too young, and had no "life experience." Similarly, when I tell people I will be writing a memoir, they respond with, "Well what do you have to write about? Have you had any life experience?" It's always the same. People assume that writing, especially nonfiction, is about your "life experience," and that if you’re young, you have none. Seriously? I’d bet money that most professors and readers would want good writing over "interesting" experiences. As for me, I’ve been shot in the head, depressed, starving, met famous people, had people I know die, and yet I wouldn’t wish to give most of my “life experience” to anyone, because I’ve had a lot of bad “life experience.” All that stuff has also not made me a more interesting writer, because for the most part, I write about relationships and animals and literary theory.
Anyway, who says you have to limit yourself to what you’ve experienced? You can easily write about other people, or even write about the ordinary, boring things you’ve experienced. How about Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of The Moth?” That essay is maybe 750 words, and deals with the speaker’s “experience” of watching a moth die. Can’t really be any more boring than that, can it? And yet this essay has been anthologized seemingly forever.
There’s been some amazing work that hasn’t relied on “life experience” as much as the act of re-imagining the ordinary into the extraordinary. You can still be interesting even if you’re writing about your day at the local coffee shop. It’s not what you write about, it’s how you write about it. If you’re 30 and writing about your travels to Zimbabwe but doing it badly, your writing won’t be nearly as interesting as the 21 year old who writes well about online dating or a lecture course on Milton. It’s all about the details.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t live, but don’t go looking for risk and adventure just to make your life and your writing more interesting. A couple of months ago, I went to the beach and saw an old man with two poodles, one of which was a miniature. Then a little girl and her father came up to him and the girl started petting the bigger poodle. Oh yeah, the poodles had sweaters, and the old gentleman was of the stylishly eccentric variety. Meanwhile, I'm walking by, having the most boring day of my life, when this man says, "ya still got five fingers?" I've been thinking about that day for two months now.