Are you experienced?

This week, Chris and I went to Experience Hendrix Live at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I will admit, this was more for him than me. I do appreciate a good guitar solo and the music of Jimi Hendrix. However, thanks to my high sensitivity, I’m not so much a fan of crowds and loud noises. Also, when he told me he’d gotten balcony seats in the front row, I don’t think it really registered for me that the balcony at Whitney Hall is five stories above the floor.

So, me, tiny aisle, short guard rail, FIVE STORY DROP TO YOUR DEATH. Albeit a dramatic death with an appropriately dramatic soundtrack.

I did not have enough cash on me for the amount of alcohol it would have taken for me to relax in that environment. Also, I’m not sure Chris can still carry me if I’m completely unconscious.

However, the music itself was excellent, with Zakk Wylde, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd being the standouts in my opinion.

It was one of those experiences I will tuck away in my memory, in the event I need to write a character who’s terrified of heights. I’m usually not, but for some reason this particular high place freaked me out. Or in case I need to write about a rock concert or an amazing guitar solo.

In one sense, almost every experience is a part of your writing education, in that it provides you with more material to turn into story. Sculptors work with clay, painters work with oils or watercolors, and writers work with experiences. I often hear writers talk about the guilt they feel when life overtakes their writing for a short season. But I do think that there is a cycle at play. “Inspiration” is a word that refers to breathing.

You breathe in life, and you breathe out story. Living fully, out in the world away from The Page, is your inhalation–you can’t really skip it. This can easily become an excuse for procrastination, a tool of Resistance. But we shouldn’t devalue our life experiences. They have their own value, and are not at all disconnected from the writing life.

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We also tend to devalue our actual writing experience, if it isn’t in the genre or format we have deemed “real writing.”

At eighteen years old, I was writing (and producing) :30 and one minute commercials for a radio station. At 23, I was translating the handwritten scribbles of engineers into 200 pages of military response to RFPs, copyediting them, proofreading them, and doing layout and desktop publishing. At 27, I was writing training materials, magazine articles and marketing materials for a military training division and conducting training on proofreading and editing.  By age 29, I was writing speeches, website copy and all the marketing materials for a large regional commercial contractor.

So why didn’t I consider any of that to be “writing experience” or consider myself a “real writer” until I had Copywriter on my business card? Why did I think that and the next six or seven years of full-time, professional writing in marketing and advertising “counted” when I decided to write fiction again?

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We are very good at telling ourselves we’re not good enough. We need a deep bench of excuses to avoid doing our work. So our inner critic becomes the Evil HR Manager who looks down her nose at us in the mirror, and tells us we don’t have the proper qualifications for this job, this vocation of writing. We don’t have the right experience.

If she thinks she can get away with it, she’ll try to tell us we don’t have any experience, ignoring the beautiful letters you wrote to your mother, or the way you can craft an email to deliver bad news without hurting the recipient unduly. Or the blog you’re afraid nobody reads.

But all experience matters. All of it counts. All of it is building our tool set, either providing source material or building up basic skills of craft.

So what about you? Are you experienced? What experiences have contributed unexpectedly to your writing life? What writing have you previously believed didn’t “count,” but helped you build skill in word craft?

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