Dispatches | July 09, 2014


By Rachel Jelinek

“Nothing needs to happen to a writer’s life after they are twenty. By then they’ve experienced more than enough to last their creative life.” – Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor produced wonderful work in her relatively short life, but I can’t help but disagree with this particular quote of hers. I am currently twenty years old and I know I have not lived long enough or have experienced enough in these past twenty years to write great stories.

Great writing comes with great experiences and great experiences come from a life well lived. It’s too difficult to create the feeling involved with losing a parent or raising a child without actually living them. Furthermore, I’ve never experienced true love, so I’m confident I can’t accurately portray it in any book I plan to write without first experiencing it for myself.

A person’s twenties are a time of discovery. Discovering who you are as a person as well as discovering who you are as a writer.

I believe one’s life is just beginning at twenty. Before a person hits his or her twenties, many have been living with parents, relying on them for money and advice, and have spent most of their time in the school system. I’m not saying people don’t have life changing experiences before they’re twenty. They do. A person can experience both their first love and their first heartbreak before twenty. They can learn what it’s like to move out of their parent’s home and go away to college. They can take part in regular teenager shenanigans. They experience for the first time that money does not grow on trees.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg. For me, I have barely begun to hit some of the essential milestones. Yes, I have traveled, read over a hundred books, met people from all walks of life, and have been stressed trying to balance school, work, and a social life. But there is a lot I have yet to experience: entering the work force, getting married, having a family, traveling more, and of course, reading more.

I think there is a major difference between reading about an experience and actually living the experience. With the numerous books I’ve read over the course of my life, I have read about love, loss, traveling around the world, and being successful. I have felt twigs snapping beneath my feet in the Alaskan woods with Chris McCandless from Into the Wild and I have travelled across the country on a train with Jacob Jankowski from Water for Elephants.

But the main difference is that I have read about them, not actually experienced them for myself. The key to producing great writing is to be able to portray the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound) and to make that reader feel as though he or she is in the character’s place. But if a writer has not done these things for himself or herself, than the writing is not as authentic. The character’s experiences will stay on the page instead of leaping out and being felt by the reader.

Of course, this is a little easier if an author is writing a work of fiction or nonfiction. So what about those who write science fiction or fantasy? They can’t possibly experience an entire hotel coming alive with the ghosts of past guests like in The Shining, nor can they say that they have ever defeated aliens. But I think the key to remember is how important those five senses are to telling a story, as well as recognizing the underlying emotions that are present in particular situations.

Maybe a person can walk in a graveyard late at night and allow all their fears to consume them so that they can get a better sense of what their characters may experience in their book when they encounter a ghost. Or, if due to financial reasons, a person cannot afford to fly to California to swim in the ocean for the first time, he or she could find a nearby lake or river that they can swim in, and just spend the time thinking about how it affects their five senses and how it would be similar or different to swimming in an ocean.

A writer cannot simply sit around, hoping that an idea for a book will just magically appear. Instead, they have to leave their home and experience the world around them. And because money does not grow on trees, they will be prevented from experiencing everything they’ve ever wanted. But if that’s the case, then a person needs to find adventures closer to home and just constantly be aware of the emotions at play when they do something as simple as swimming in a nearby lake or experiencing a new culture by walking into a different restaurant, church, or club.

Experiences, both big and small, have to be sought out. If they’re not, than a person is just limiting his or her opportunities for creativity. And if they are actively seeking them, then I I still don’t think it is possible to have had enough of these experiences by the age of twenty.

Yes, my past twenty years have been wonderful. But I don’t think I have experienced enough to last my creative life, and in all honesty, I don’t think I want to. I hope I never feel like I have reached my creative limits, because a writer should never want to stop learning about himself or herself or about the world around them. It’s exciting not to have all the answers just yet because it means there is that much more to learn. As an aspiring writer, editor, traveler, wife, and mother, I look forward to the experiences I have not yet lived and I can’t wait to write about them and share them with the world one day.