In an interview with The Paris Review, William Faulkner was asked how much of his writing was based on personal experience. The following was his response:
I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.
I often think of this piece of advice from William Faulkner when I am struggling to finish a scene or transition into a new scene. Just remembering that either experience, observation and/or imagination is all one needs, gets me through those instances when self-doubt begins to seep into my mind. The scenes that seemed impossible to finish look like obstacles rather than dead ends when you sit for a few moments and think back to something you have observed in real life that could be applied here. Similarly, the practice of imagination, the “what if” allows one to create several different scenarios, allowing the writing to pick the one that fits the best. Experience meanwhile is like an intuition, almost a certain mindlessness state where you just know what should come next because you have either read enough or written enough to know. This experience can help with the flow of the story because you just know that what you have written isn’t quite right and there is something missing.
I think the most valuable aspect of Faulkner’s advice is that all three things, experience, observation, and imagination, are in your control. There is nothing external about it and neither does it depend on some genetic ability. One gains experience through writing and reading. Observation through the practice of an inquiring mind, trying to really capture your daily life and what you have noticed. Imagination is something that is grown through reading and experiencing life and keeping a sense of wonderment. All three are nurtured by you and all three can help you get through the troublesome parts of writing.
For me, the simplest advice works best. Whether it be Stephen King’s advice of read a lot and write a lot, or what Haruki Murakami considered to be the three essential aspects a writer needs or Ernest Hemingway’s belief of what to write about, it is all simple and to the point. Just as Faulkner’s experience, observation, and imagination.