WHO NEEDS EXPERIENCE WHEN YOU HAVE IMAGINATION?
That marvelous British character actor, Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte, was once asked in a radio interview what advice he would give to a young actor. I have never forgotten his answer. It was delivered with a chuckle—something of a Hyde-Whyte specialty. It was: “My dear chap, never tread the boards until you are over forty.”
He did not mean his words literally. He meant that one is unlikely to be able to perform as a serious actor until you have considerable experience of your craft, and life in general, under your belt. By “the boards” of course, he meant the theater. He appeared in numerous British movies, but the theater was where he learned his craft.
Does his advice apply to writing as well? When you are a young writer in your early twenties, the idea of having to wait for two decades to reach the necessary level of professionalism must seem intolerable. Nonetheless, I believe that, broadly speaking, it is true.
But surely, when writing fiction, imagination is an adequate substitute?
I was challenged by my editor at the time – somewhat testily - on exactly this point. Why did I have to visit a particular location in order to write about it? Surely, I could imagine it? Well, of course I could, and sometimes I do write about places I have not visited, but it is my belief that nothing beats first-hand experience. In particular, there is the opportunity to sense a mood and notice details that add authenticity to one’s writing. Guide books are strong on history and the descriptions of buildings, but are generally weak on the human factor.
At that moment I had no problem at all understanding why he was the editor and I was the writer. He simply could not imagine the stimulating effect of experiencing the real thing in order to write fiction (however odd that may sound)—especially when one’s fiction is grounded in reality; as mine tends to be.
My flash of anger passed, as it should have. He was thinking in terms of deadlines; and I was focused upon writing the best book that I could.
Back to my point about experiencing life. I happen to think it is particularly important, but the good news for the young and the impatient—the latter term is arguably redundant—is that imagination is such a powerful and varied attribute that virtually anything is possible. So listen and learn, but never accept the limitations imposed on you by others—including me.