Using Life Experiences in Writing

I often hear “write what you know, draw on your own experiences to provide your characters with actions and emotions.” I suspect, as writers, we do this without even thinking about it.

Six years ago today the greatest adventure of my lifetime came to an end. Here’s what I wrote on that day.

“We crossed our wake back into Dog River on the Western edge of Mobile Bay on a warm, sunny afternoon, just one day ahead of a big storm. We pulled out the gold America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association burgee and tied it to our bow while our marina neighbors—some just beginning the journey—congratulated us on our finish. It’s been quite a trip.”

We covered 5,300 miles in seven and a half months. Our average speed was about eight knots, although we drove harder the final week. My spouse and I—a couple of seniors—were on a trip called America’s Great Loop, a boating adventure that circumnavigates the Eastern third of the United States. We did it in a 32-foot boat called Sea Bear, just right for two people.

The trip began and ended in Mobile, Alabama. We traveled on canals, rivers, oceans, and lakes. We navigated our way through more than a hundred locks, windy squalls, two groundings, a foggy night on the open sea, and one tornado watch. We got to our ports and anchorages safely, sometimes a bit grouchy from long, vigilant days on the water, but always grateful when we tied to our last cleat or the anchor was secure.

So what did I learn and how does it relate to writing?

For me this trip was the ultimate emotional experience because—well, let me just say it—I am afraid of the water. Gut wrenching, knuckle-blanching terror ties me in a quivering knot every time the wind comes up. When we’re in open water and the boat rolls from side to side or bumps through troughs and spray, I wrap myself in a virtual ball and pray for deliverance to a safe harbor.

Fortunately, my spouse knew what he was doing and spared me whenever he could. He had a Coast Guard captain’s license and had worked on boats surveying harbors for the government. This trip was a bucket list item for him and I wanted him to have it. So I went.

The boat became my enemy and my friend. It raised fears greater than I’d ever experienced, while at the same time teaching me that I am fearless. It frustrated me to the point of anger, while calming me each morning as I looked out over a golden sunrise.

My experiences on Sea Bear soothed as often as they frightened. Looking back, I cannot imagine NOT going along on that wonderful, terrifying-at-times, but ultimately educational trip. That was our last seafaring adventure. Soon after, my spouse had a stroke and we had to sell the boat.

To date, none of my books are about traveling by boat. But the feelings I experienced often surface when my heroines are in danger or some disaster is afoot, and I like to think that what I experienced ultimately made me a better writer.

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2 Responses to Using Life Experiences in Writing

  1. viola62 says:

    Great post! I think you need to unleash your inner boat captain in a novel!

  2. pamelagibson says:

    I’ve actually thought about using the experience as a survival guide for other white knuckle spouses who don’t want to be left behind (non-fiction). Confessions of a White-Knuckle Cruising Spouse. But novel? maybe.

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