Like anyone who has an email address I’ve gotten my share of phishing emails demanding that I immediately reply to this email or my USAA account will be deactivated. Except I do not now have, nor have I ever had, any account of any kind with USAA.

I fancy myself a smart guy, so when I get these messages—even ones that mention a bank I actually am doing some business with—into the spam folder they go head first. No bank will ask you to email them your account number.

And that includes the Bank of Experience.

Writing is one of the cheapest businesses to get into, and if your books sell well that means they can be incredibly profitable, so having a good bank will, I hope, be really important for you. But before you can start depositing royalty checks into the Bank of America (or whatever) you have to carefully manage the balance of your Bank of Experience account.

Writers come in all shapes and sizes, writing in different genres and categories across a wide range of processes and not just “planners” or “pantsers” but a broad spectrum of approaches that makes it exceedingly difficult to describe the typical work day of an author. But if there’s one thing we all have in common it’s that we draw from ourselves to create something that communicates to others.

Pure journalism (just the facts, ma’am) and certain forms of technical writing aside, everything you write comes from you, from your experience and outlook, from your interactions with people and the world around you. In “The Middle of Things: Advice for Young Writers,” Andrew Solomon wrote:

A poor workman blames his tools, and we have only two: language and experience. Neither one is so poor as to hamper our ability to do what we dream of. The use of language gets taught at M.F.A. programs nationwide. The use of experience is far more elusive, a long-term game not easily won. Experience poses the questions we are asked to live, and our writing is the mere shadow of an answer.

Every time you sit down to write, you draw from your “Bank of Experience.” But like a literal bank account, you can’t just keep drawing experiences out without making the occasional deposit.

I tend to be of the opinion that we’re all constantly and unconsciously refilling that account not just in every waking moment, but with our dreams as well—ah, if only money could come that easily. Everything we hear, see, feel; every person we meet, work with, buy something from or sell something to; every cloud that passes in front of the sun, every drop of rain… all that stuff piles in there. And it’s there for us to sort out when it comes time to write a scene that needs to be carried by characters that feel real, that come with those same accounts full of experiences.

Then, every once in a while, something unusual happens—and this is where I think we need to be particularly conscious of our experience accounts.

Last Friday, I woke up with what I thought was a stomach ache—maybe didn’t eat the best quality food the day before… I don’t know. The pain quickly moved to my chest, then around the left side of my chest into my left shoulder blade. I started sweating profusely. Breathing was painful but possible. I started taking various over-the-counter medications and doing some light stretching exercises to try to get things under control.

Nothing worked.

And it got steadily worse.

Then I thought, I’ll be fine, just get to work and don’t think about it.

I sat down at my computer and found myself incapable of concentrating on the slightest thing. So of course I started Googling the symptoms and, as anyone who’s ever Googled symptoms knows, the first thing that comes back is some version of “You’re dying. Call 911, or just lay down and be at peace with the howling blackness of infinite oblivion.”

According to the Internet I was having a heart attack.

There were some fine-print alternatives that were slightly less scary, but I was one day ahead of my fifty-fifth birthday and at least a hundred pounds overweight, so I was definitely having a heart attack. But then, can you have a heart attack for four hours and still be walking around and, though in agonizing pain, alive?

I have no idea, but ultimately, even I had to surrender and go to the hospital.

Turns out the ER doctor and nurses thought I was having a heart attack, too, or at least that I might have been. They did all the essential tests, including ruling out heartburn.

I’ve had heartburn.

This was not heartburn.

But they numbed my esophagus anyway, which made it feel as though I had partially swallowed a golf ball.

Pain just as bad.

Electrocardiogram: fine.

Still, they gave me a nitroglycerin tablet to dissolve under my tongue. Imagine taking a drop of highly corrosive acid and holding it under your tongue while it burns your bottom jaw off.

Pain still the same.

Well, let’s see if it might be your aorta.

I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m generally familiar with what the aorta is and does and that freaked me out.

Into the CT scan they load me, feet first.

The tech said he was going to give me a drug that will make it feel like I’ve peed my pants, but assured me that I will not pee my pants, just that it will really feel like I’ve peed my pants.

Holy shit, it felt like I peed my pants.

It really felt like I had really peed my pants. Really.

But really, I didn’t pee my pants.

Results: Aorta fine.

Pausing here, as a now fifty-five year old fat guy it is nice to know that my heart and aorta are both perfectly fine. I credit a tobacco-free life, because  in terms of cardiac health I’m basically doing everything else wrong.

But I got that going for me, which is nice.

However, the CT scan did find…


Lots and lots and lots of little crystals had formed in my gallbladder, and had apparently been forming and moving around in there for years, which I now understand was the cause of chronic and sometimes debilitating back pain—it wasn’t my back, it was my gallbladder, but the pain, like a leaking roof, might show up in other places… somehow. In the past these stones had blocked things up, causing pain, then dislodged so the pain went away or was more manageable. This time they were not going away, and the pain was not manageable.

So they wheeled me out of the ER and right to the OR where I scooted over onto a table, was told they were going to strap my feet down, then they put a mask over my face. The really nice, young anesthesiologist said, “This is just oxygen, breathe normally.” They joked around with each other for a few seconds, then he said, “Okay,” and I was instantly transported to Isolation 14, a Nazi prison camp in the universe of Amazon Prime’s deplorable “adaptation” of Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece The Man in the High Castle.

Someone was holding my legs down and squeezing my ankles and the little clip on the index finger of my right hand was pissing me off so I flicked it away. I little tube was blowing freezing cold air into my right nostril and it was making my nose run. I couldn’t find my left hand under a pile of blankets. Something hurt on the right side of my abdomen and I was vaguely aware of nurses standing behind me so I said, “It hurts right here—there’s a bump here.” I thought they might want to know. They said they knew already and told me not to touch it but I had already.

The bump was actually a little wad of gauze covering one of four incisions they made to find, snip out, clip off, then remove my gallbladder.

I found out later the nurses told my wife I was being “combative,” in the recovery room, which was not Isolation 14, and I was not in an episode of The Man in the High Castle. There was a room right in front of me and the sign outside did read ISOLATION, but I was not in there. The curtained areas were numbered and the one next to me was 14, so there we have Isolation 14. I have it on good authority that neither of the nurses were Nazis, real or imaginary.

I wasn’t being “combative,” I just didn’t like having freezing cold air blown up my nose while people squeezed my ankles—and so what if there were no people squeezing my ankles but inflatable things meant to prevent me from getting a life-threatening blood clot. You just poured drugs into my body and I’m supposed to, what, wake up and just know that?

They also called me “controlling.”

That, I can… yeah. Okay.

In any case, all of this is now in the experience account.

I also now know what it feels like to recover from four stab wounds to the abdomen because, though it may have been done in a controlled environment by trained professionals, I have in fact been stabbed in the abdomen four times, sewn up, and sent home. For the record, it fucking hurts.

What does this sort of experience mean for a writer? Everything!

Like the old saying goes: “I lived to tell the tale.”

I had minor, routine surgery, and lived, now I get to tell the tale. You know I’m going to eventually write something set in Isolation 14, and it’s going to be at least as scary as my incoherent, drug-addled imagination experienced it in the moment. The Nazis will be all too real and my hero will be combative AF.


—Philip Athans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Wow! Well, first off, glad you’re ok and were not having a heart attack! Secondly, I can’t wait to read the Isolation 14 story that comes out of this experience.

    Like you, and every other writer we know, I’ve tapped into my Bank of Experience several times. My biggest frustration? Several years ago, I was rejected by the prosecution and defense attorneys as a viable jury member. Seems they didn’t like that I’m married to a cop or that I, at the time, worked for a non-profit. Enough for both of them to say no. Most people don’t want to be on a jury, but I feel like the experience would provide up a wealth of material. There’s probably a story from my rejection, too, just not the one I wanted. I’m sure I’ll make that withdrawal some day.

    Meanwhile, hope you’re up and feeling better soon.

  2. Dave says:

    OMG Phil! I hope you’re back to firing on all cylinders now. Thank you for sharing you harrowing experience of the likes which I too recently survived. You’re classes and your writing continue to inspire me to JKW Just Keep Writing. All the best.

  3. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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