Do You Write from Experience or Imagination?

by Joe Bunting | 37 comments

Is your writing fueled by everyday experiences or by imagination? Of course, these two are often mixed together in the stories we tell; yet, you probably draw more from one than the other.

You may be the type of person who eavesdrops in coffee shops and later writes stories. Or you may often be pulled into parallel worlds of other planets filled with fascinating creatures and sixth and seventh senses.

foreign culture, identity

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

The Role of Experience

I recently listened to a talk by Elif Shafak, where she tells her life story of growing up as a diplomatic child of a divorcée Turkish mother and her experiences of living abroad in a multicultural environment. She remarks on other people’s expectations in regards to the topics she’s writing about. As a writer of Turkish origin, she’s expected to mainly write about her notions of Turkish identity in her stories.

To lay out her point, she mentions writing residencies/workshops where writers are gathered based on their ethnic background, most likely in the prospect of gathering different kinds of writing material.

Many writers do feel the urge to write about what they see, what they know, what they’ve experienced, capturing the writer’s zeitgeist. Think of Hanif Kureishi and his wonderful exploration of immigration and race in Britain or Salman Rushdie, who caused a major controversy with his writing on Islam and was even persecuted under death threats.

If it wasn’t for writers like them and many others, we would all have been short of understanding specific regions, social and cultural issues, pastimes. In fact, perhaps we’d be in complete oblivion.

The Role of Imagination

Even so, what about the other side of this coin? The Indian who wishes to set his stories in Sri Lanka or a Chinese writer in a protagonist undercover as an African American?

The imagination is a vast, limitless, and infinite vehicle that spins around universally, and its usages correlate to its features. You are free to use it in whatever way you want: Turn it around, take it as it comes, and pull it upside down, left or right, 90 degrees north.

Or throw it away and rely on what’s around. Neither one is better than the other. The freedom of choice in literature has been won for a long time.

Are you writing about your experience or are you more interested in your imagination's ability to create new worlds?


For fifteen minutes, use your imagination to write about a protagonist of a different culture.

Try to explore his unique perspective in every way you can—by depicting his or her surrounding, the people around him. This can be your next door neighbour or a completely imagined character from a land you’ve never been to or even heard of.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. Maure

    Does it have to be a real-world culture, or can it be an imaginary world? (Just not quite sure on that.)

    • Sophie Novak

      Either one – you make the choice.

  2. Paul Owen

    Philip rolled over, then sat up fully awake. Moonlight shone through the bedroom window. Still an hour or so before dawn, but time for the day to start. His internal clock was enough to keep him on schedule, which seldom varied anyway. He got dressed and headed downstairs.

    Except for Philip’s clumping down the creaky stairs, the house was quiet. No need to preserve the stillness, though, since it was just him now. The dogs all slept in the barn. He started the new drip coffee maker and put on boots for morning chores. While lacing them he looked over at the percolator on the far counter. That’s what his wife would have had brewing by now, but Philip just didn’t have the patience for it. Coffee was for caffeine now, not company, and the quicker the better.

    He stepped outside, into the cool morning breeze and cricket sounds. Soon three dogs bounded out of the barn to say hello. And get fed. Philip’s boots crunched gravel on the drive as he walked to the barn, in and out of moon shadows. Leaving the dogs to their food, he returned to the house for coffee.

    Philip checked a task list he’d written the previous evening. Those things used to rest easily in his mind, but now he needed help from pen and paper. Equipment and materials needed preparation, along with maintenance on the house he’d need to work in somehow. Spring planting was coming soon.

    The house became quiet so quickly. Philip knew why, of course, but he didn’t want to think about it. Better to go back outside with the dogs. He left his mug half-empty on the counter and went out to focus on chores instead of memories.

    • Audrey Chin

      Paul, this is sad. I loved the way you evoke how his wife is gone with “coffee was for caffeine now, not company, and the quicker the better”.

    • Paul Owen

      Thanks for the note, Audrey.

    • Sophie Novak

      So poignant – reads naturally. It’s going to be a great story Paul.

    • Paul Owen

      Thank you. Sophie. I have an idea for what do with this theme – we’ll see how it works out!

  3. George McNeese

    April stared out at sun, burnt orange, descending into the horizon. She looked back at the glistening windows, watching her co-workers carry their lunchboxes and heave them into their cars. One by one, the doors closed and they drove off the flattened dirt road. “Another day gone,” she thought. She took off her ballcap, a gift from her father at seven years old, and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
    “Daddy, can we go to the AstroDome today?”
    “Why?” April’s father asked. He closed and folded up the newspaper. “Why do you want to go there today?”
    April gave the same reply. “Because the Astros are my favorite team. And because they have stars on their hats. And the stars are orange. And orange is my favorite color.”
    April’s dad lifted her up. “Have I ever told you you’re going to be a star, honey?”
    “Yep. That’s what Mommy says, too.” They giggled.
    April smiled as she looked down on her cap. It was faded and dirty, the threads bordering the star were loose and flail, the missing embroidery made the capital H lowercase. Then, she fished a ticket out of her pocket. The Astros were playing the Mariners tonight. Her thin scarlet locks blinded her, but she brushed them away. April slung her cap back on, gave it a wiggle, and walked to her car.

    • Audrey Chin

      This is nice George. It sounds like a memory “dearly known” and “held close to the heart” or am I wrong?

    • George McNeese

      The statement is nearly accurate. I only wish I had memories close to what I created.

    • Sophie Novak

      A sweet practice. And I hope the end is going to be sweet too. 🙂

    • girlonaswing

      What happens next? Is it recorded elsewhere?

    • George McNeese

      As of now, I’m not sure what happens next. Suggestions are welcome.

    • Paul Owen

      I loved reading this, George. April is a character I want to know a lot more about, after just these few paragraphs. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Audrey Chin

    i’m exploring both Sophie – writing my own experience with more emotional honesty and also exploring imaginative worlds.

    Here is an imagined pickup — I’m not sure where it’s going but I think it will be somewhere very strange.

    Since coming to this country, he’s had a brunette with one blue eye and one green, a blonde the size of an elephant, a sixty year old with the energy of a teen, a
    double amputee, a deaf mute, others equally strange and wondrous. Until today
    though, there’s been no one he can set in the centre of his opus grande, no one to provide the finishing touch.

    It’s her white fingers inching over the seemingly empty pages that tell him she’s
    the one.

    He has to have her.

    He imagines how he’ll write it —the phrases he’ll use to describe her perfect pale
    skin, the sensory overload from the lights reflected in her transparent glass
    hair dancing across his eyes and the bounce of their tight springs against his
    palms. He wonders about how she’ll touch him, this woman whose eyes he hasn’t
    seen yet, hidden as they are behind forbidding dark glasses. The anticipation of it is barely containable.His toes begin to twitch, his feet to bounce on the cushion of his flip-flops.

    He crosses his arms across his caved-in chest and hugs his wasted shoulders tight.
    Come down — he tells himself —Come down. Before the story there must be the seduction.
    Before anything else, he and she must connect.

    Zigging and zagging, he makes his way through the crowded café towards where she is, in a corner by the rest rooms. There are tables and chairs to navigate, a gang of burly men in Australian Rules jerseys and a final hurdle, the stuck out legs of a couple of raggedy haired users wasted from a night of tripping angel dust. For his credibility’s sake, there’s also a quick stop at a just vacated table to retrieve a luckily abandoned cup of latte still hot and nearly full. And then, he’s there.

    May I? — he asks, setting the latte on the table with a clunk so she can hear
    he’s there.

    There is a low growl from below the table warning him not to try more liberties. He looks down. A yellow retriever is curled at her feet, it’s open mouth and big teeth are inches from his bare toes.

    She tilts her head to place where his voice has come from, then turns slowly to smile into his chest.

    Sarabi can be a little protective — she says.

    Coming from her ghost pale body, her voice is unexpected, deep and dark and sultry with flattened South African vowels he could swallow in one big hungry gulp.

    Yes, I can see she’s a really good watchdog — he replies with as much calm as he
    can muster.

    She smiles away his unintended put-down.
    Just reach your hand out very slowly and let her have a good long sniff,
    so she knows you. Then you’ll be alright — she says.

    He does not feel alright. His heart is skittering in twenty different directions and his body is in flames with want. Dogs, he has found out to his detriment, smell fear. Likely, this bitch can smell lust and intention too; all the things he wants to do with this woman, everything he hopes to inflict on her body to carry his story forward, his very last greatest story…

    To his relief, the animal’s instincts aren’t as sharp as they should be. After
    a cursory sniff the dog licks his outstretched fingers with a raspy tongue and
    lays its head back down on its folded front paws. While it continues to stare
    steadily at him through its amber flecked eyes, the animal allows him to sit
    down and even draw his chair nearer its enigmatic mistress.

    I thought audio books put an end to Braille — he ventures.

    She pauses to think about that.

    Not if you want to experience the words pure and without intermediation — she says after long minutes. Her chin tilts up, an enquiring bird’s tilt, her dark glasses reflecting his gaunt face — After all, you wouldn’t watch the film version of a book before you read it would you? An actor’s voice … It would spoil everything. She dismisses the notion with a flick of her long ivory fingers, turns back to her book with its page perforated regularly with little bumps and switches him off.

    He stares at the invitingly empty book with its infinite possibilities. He swallows. What she says is true. He has never in his whole life watched a movie adaptation
    until after he’s read a book. Never. How can she know this about him?

    He is sick with want for her, this person who already, without him saying a thing knows the most important thing about him, his respect for the word, the absolute
    importance of the words and how the words more than anything carry the story.

    But it seems he’s not to have her. She’s lost in her book. And the bony old bitch at her feet with her African lioness name and watchful lioness eyes won’t let him any
    nearer, not for a touch, not even the slightest intake of the perfume emanating
    from her body.

    It is her head slightly hooked forward like a bird of prey, looking expectantly down unseeing at her fingers, that tells him how he might do it.

    What if it’s an autobiography? — he asks. Would you listen to someone reading their own life?

    Yes – she nods. That would be worth listening to, an autobiography in the writer’s own voice. In fact, that might the only way to have that type of story true.

    And obituaries too — he continues —Obituaries must sound too. And
    they must be sounded by others, by anyone passing along. Otherwise, how would
    they give life again to the dead.

    No — she shakes her head, a firm twist one way than another.

    Obituaries are meant to be felt with the heart. The way one reads a headstone.
    Like this — she shows him, running her fingers slowly across the Braille of her page.
    And then it is she who reaches over the head of the golden retriever Sarabi and across the space between them and takes his hand in hers.
    Like this — she whispers, as she leads his index finger across the little bumps. Can’t you hear them?

    And it is he who finds himself suddenly pulling his hand away, frightened
    by the echo of the dead in her deep and dark African voicem and the pallor of
    ghosts shimmering on her white albino skin.

    • Sophie Novak

      I loved the Braille touch to the story – a very good element. Excellent work Audrey.

    • girlonaswing

      I love this. You took me right into the scene. I did not like your protagonist at all and I feel he got what he deserved. Your writing is so vivid and believable.

    • Audrey Chin

      Thanks Girl. Yes, my protagonis is yucky isn’t hi. He suddenly realizes Sarabi looks like she hasn’t eaten for days either. Hmmm. I think I’m going to try make it a serialized novel like the next post. Can these 2 unlikeable people get together and redeem each other

  5. Steve Stretton

    This is a rework of part of a novel I’m working on. I’ve used the POV of one of the minor characters as she encounters the main protagonist.

    Anna glided down the street, the traffic passing silently by. Suddenly she saw a disturbing sight, a man, unaccompanied, walking clumsily toward her. A man, he should be in the Compound with all the others she thought. What is a lone male doing out here. She stopped.

    “Who are you? Why aren’t you in the Compound? How did you get out?”

    “My name is Daryl Witlow. I don’t know what you mean by this Compound.”

    “What do you mean, you don’t know, all men are in the Compound. Where do you come from then?”

    “I came from the museum. I woke up after being cryogenically frozen. I’ve just come from there. What and where is this Compound you speak of?”

    “All men are in the Compound for their own and our protection. We are under siege. Our men have been decimated. We have to protect them.”

    Daryl blinked.
    “When is this?”

    “It’s six thirty eight New Era. When were you frozen?”

    “Twenty fifteen by our reckoning. When was that in your time?”

    “We changed to New Era in twenty three fifty Old Era. You must have been frozen a long time.”

    “Yes, I was. What happens now?”

    • Sophie Novak

      Quite an imagination Steve. You got me interested. What is going to happen?

    • girlonaswing

      Intriguing. I recently read Mitch Albom’s book, The Time Keeper. He explores cryogenics in an incredible way. Your imagination is rich and adventurous. I am so stuck in the life I live.

    • Paul Owen

      Thanks for sharing, Steve. Gotta read more about this Compound, not that I want to be in it!

  6. amrit

    Why do I want to write……

    We, as humans, are
    selfish and sensitive at the same time. Sometimes, we selfishly create our own
    world in which everything happens to our wish making us happy for the
    time-being. We want to be in that world, perhaps to experience what appears to
    us as joy or happiness. But when the reality clashes with the imagination, its
    like a big bang of the waves of the sea and mighty rock cliff. The very first
    clash destroys the waves. Making a roaring noise it returns back to the ocean
    and becomes quiet. That roar is simply not the sound produced because the
    waves, it is the cry of the ocean, which realizes that it cannot go further,
    beyond the rock. Our condition as humans are same. When our hopes and wishes
    get crushed by the cliff of reality, we shatter. A deep roar comes from our heart which can
    only be heard by us, just like the lonely ocean. Tears flow from eyes, terrible
    agony piercing our heart, making us weak.

    But the ocean
    doesn’t lose hope. With sheer patience, its waves hit the strong rock again and
    again. And in due course of time it crushes the rocks turning them into sand.
    How does it do it? From where it gets this amount of patience? From where does
    it gets this amount of faith? Maybe as humans, we don’t have this much patience
    or belief to change our own destiny like the ocean. I am no exception. I am
    also too weak to bear this much gloom. I also want to be happy, experience joy.

    This is why I want
    to write. Neither I have the patience of the mighty ocean or a steady belief. I
    cannot make amends to the world created by God. He is the master of it, He
    knows everything better than anyone else. I have to create my own alternate
    world where I am the master, where I can blend all the imperfections of the
    reality and mould them according to my wish, making a perfect world for myself.
    And the joy which I will be getting after creating it, perhaps, I may be able
    to borrow a little joy from that abstract, imaginary world and try to infuse it
    in my own imperfect and real life, giving me a reason to be happy despite of
    all odds. Maybe that little joy will serve as the fuel to rejuvenate my
    pathetic life and provides me my self-confidence.


    • Sophie Novak

      Thanks for joining us. It speaks from the heart and that kind of prose is always beautiful. I find it fantastic that you’ve started with ‘why I write’ because the reasons should always be there in the writer’s mind and guide him through the difficult times. I’m looking forward to read more practices from you in the future.

    • amrit

      thank u a lot sophie…as i have said this is my first post and i really appreciate you all….this inspires me to write more which i will….

    • Steve Stretton

      I like this piece, it goes into one of the main reasons we all write, the desire to create a world we can control. And in writing this post you have met another reason, the desire to reach out to others like yourself. I hope we see more from you.

    • Audrey Chin

      I like this. Write more Amrit. It says all the reasons in a poetic way with great metaphors. I love the image of the ocean.

    • amrit

      thank u audrey…your comment inspires me a lot..i will write more

    • vivek sharma

      Great post Amrit, I am also a fellow traveler in this journey of writing. May god bless you.

  7. girlonaswing

    Hi Sophie, I am completely challenged by your post. I watched Elif Shafak on YouTube. It made me think. As a child I always wrote fiction, as an adult I write what I know. I want to get better at both. In my 15 minutes I produced the following. I wonder if my protagonist will ever get out or whether she’s as stuck as me!

    “Why do people move? What makes them uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon? Why climb this Mount Everest of formalities that makes you feel like a beggar? Why enter this jungle of foreignness where everything is new, strange and difficult?
    The answer is the same the world over: people move in the hope of a better life.” Yann Martel

    It was a huge risk to leave everything behind. She’d worked there for years and over time the people had become family. Life was predictable. Safe. She could mouth the sentiments of her boss in his daily preamble before he said a word. She laughed to herself, critiquing each statement the same way she counted the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ at toastmasters. Using her fingers she recorded how many times he used ‘and again’ in his speech. It was a private game that she played. No one knew that she had become bored of the place. No one knew how desperately she hoped for a better life.

    There is value in staying put, going with the flow, building your life with the people you know. She counselled herself with these words. There would be no surprises if she stayed. Had not life had enough surprises and challenges in recent years? The people here were kind, generous, accommodating. They’d lay down their life for her if she asked them. So many times they already had. It made no sense to look elsewhere. Why leave the place where you are loved, celebrated and appreciated?

    Sometimes love isn’t enough to keep you in a place. Sometimes predictable is dull. There would never be promotion if she stayed. In everyone’s mind she was the best person there was for the role that she played. So she began to way up whether it mattered to her that much if she never received a promotion.

    • Sophie Novak

      Thank you and glad to hear. You’ve picked such a great topic. It’s one that I’ve personally experienced, so perhaps I’m biased, but I think you’ve beautifully pictured the feelings that come before making the leap of change. And Yann Martel is amazing. 🙂

  8. Karoline Kingley

    I write generally from imagination. Early on in my writing endeavors, I often received the advice: “write what you know!” Yeah, what a whopper. You DO NOT have to write what you know. I mean, did C.S. Lewis actually go to a snowy land through a wardrobe full of talking animals? If so, I envy him. I hope myself as well as other writers can abolish the latter lie because attempting to write what I know, has gotten me nowhere. However, the older I become and the more life experience I have under my belt, I can better see myself writing what I know, but it definitely isn’t necessary.

  9. Daphnee Kwong Waye

    I don’t totally like the fact that Turkish people for example are expected to write about Turkish things… Yes, realism is important to spice up a story, and this is supplemented by writing on what is around us, but I prefer those writers who rely much on their imagination. For me, the only thing that is real that I include in my stories is the feelings. Emotions… these can do all the work to make a story worth reading, in any genre, real or imaginative.

    • Sophie Novak

      I completely agree Daphnee – realism is important, but everybody should choose how to use it.

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