Thursday, July 20, 2017

Art and Personal Experience - How Much Do You Need to Know?

Life would be boring if art dealt only with everyday life. We want art to be exciting, we want our characters to face hardships we never faced ourselves. But how can we create art around something we have no idea about?

If you lack personal experience: Do research!

How much personal experience does an artist need in order to create good art? This question has bothered me ever since I started writing. There was so much I wanted to write about, but being a teenager, there was so little I knew.

I still don't know much. But certainly more than fourteen years ago. And so this is what I came to believing during the past years. Please do argue with me, if you disagree:

Creating Art Without Personal Experience

I realized the importance of experience when I tried to write about war. I was responsible enough to start researching more on the countless aspects of it and the result was that I ended up scrapping the whole project halfway through. My childish ignorance had been in every little detail, and correcting it would have meant to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.

Yet what if I had finished and published that piece of ignorant crap of mine? Well, in fact, there are just too many such stories out there on the internet. Stories by people who don't seem to have any idea of what they're writing about.

If you have personal experience with something, then you often can tell if an artwork was made from the artist's personal experience or not. Some details may be overrated, others horribly underrated, and everything feels just wrong, sometimes even absurd.

Creating Art With Personal Experience

Just as there are artists who create their art around things they don't know, there are also artists who know what they're talking about more than they would like.

For example, Elem Klimov. Born in 1933, he was still a boy when he crossed the Volga River on a raft during the Battle of Stalingrad. Forty years later he directed Come and See, the most traumatizing war movie I've ever watched. And I've watched many. I also have seen people compare this movie to Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. Some of them found Come and See even more traumatizing than Apocalypse Now. And as for me ... I've seen Klimov's masterpiece once, and I'm afraid of ever watching it again.

However, only a small percentage of people have the courage to deal with their horrible experiences in order to create art. And nobody can blame people who don't have it, because with some traumas you can be considered a hero just for living with them.

It may be no coincidence that the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most authentic novels about the horrors of war, was a veteran of World War I. However, it may also be no coincidence that he spent only one and a half months in the field. Then he was wounded and spent the rest of the war in an army hospital. Compared to other soldiers, he got only a small taste of war. But he did get a taste and after the war he was capable of writing about it.

No Personal Experience, but Still Good

With all that said, it still seems that if we would create art only around things we know from our personal experience, life would be just plain boring. Almost all literature, movies, comic books, video games and so on would be about everyday life. We want art to be good, but we want it to be exciting as well, don't we?

So how do we compensate for the lack of personal experience? Well, there's research, of course, reading memoirs and diaries ... And to understand what you read on an emotional level you need empathy. And to empathize it's best if you can link the experiences of other people to similar experiences of your own.

For instance, in my latest post I wrote that I'm unassertive about writing stories about coloured people, because I don't want to write ignorant crap. After a little discussion on Google Plus with Naïve Gnostic I realized that there actually is potential for me to link to the experiences of coloured people. I'm not coloured myself, but I am a member of an underrepresented group of another kind. So I should be able to understand the life of coloured people better if I do more research and connect to the topic emotionally.

Creating Our Own Experiences

Personal Experience is important when creating art, but too much traumatizing experience can also block the creation of art regarding certain topics. So I believe that the ideal case is when the artist does have enough experience to relate, but not too much, and then this knowledge should be combined with research and empathy.

It isn't our fault that we didn't make the experiences we would like to cover in our art. Art is also about discovering and making new experiences. What seems most important to me now is to stay open and never forget the importance of research and empathy.


  1. I think what matters most is that the actions, reactions, and emotions are authentic. Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy are one of the easiest ways of getting around the problem with realistic settings. If you create a world that seems realistic then the fact that it doesn't operate the same as reality is less of an issue. A good example is Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness.

    But I agree, writing about everyday life is boring. A lot of "literary" work is boring for this reason. Realism need not be constrained by the mundane.

    1. The thing about SciFi and Fantasy is that the emotions need to be the same as in reality, so the readers can relate. This is what defines authenticity for me. In the end, even such unrealistic genres need reality.

      I love stories about everyday life, but I consider it one of the hardest genres. Your writing has to be extremely good to make a story about everyday life truly interesting. And it's horrifying to imagine what would be if everyday life was the only topic writers wrote about.


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