W is for Writing

Not all those who wander are lost - JRR Tolkien

There is no denying the act of writing is first and foremost a solitary activity. To achieve a complete draft, one must sit alone and draw out thoughts from within the mind and translate them onto paper. No one else can do that for you. No one else can reach in and gather those ideas.

In that, you are alone.

The trap with recognising this reality, is to constantly pursue isolation. “The story won’t get written while I’m at the pub,” “That chapter will never be finished if I go shopping,” “I’ll never start that essay if I catch up for coffee this afternoon with Mary Sue.” As writers, our ideas are constantly circling our minds, which often leads to the only conclusion that we can’t do anything else until we take those ideas and make something of them.

The trouble with this reasoning is that ideas grow and evolve and are built upon the things we see, hear and experience in life. If we are not out living then we are doing ourselves a disservice and crippling our ability to write better.

I am guilty of indulging myself in far too much of my own company in the ultimate quest to finish that damn novel.  I suffer for the art, as it were, and I don’t in the least mind because I love what I do.  However, when I travel I am reminded that what’s in my head is not always enough.

I guess it all comes back to the old adage “write what you know”.  I think there is a tendency to assume this means to write faithfully to your own life experiences, in a literal, semi autobiographical kind of way. If you’re a teacher, then by golly you must write about a teacher. If you have a degree in applied mathematics and you’re some kind of genius, then good grief, man! Your protagonist simply must be a maths whizz!

This is of course absurd. If such were the case, then most of the world’s published authors would be either closet mass murderers, superheroes, ninjas, or seemingly ordinary people with secret magic powers.  That, or they ‘know’ one of these kind of people (If Voldemort is your next door neighbour, now might be a good time to fess up).

My understanding of “write what you know”, relates more to emotions and experiences than ‘knowledge’: the feeling you get when you know you’ve been betrayed by someone close to you; the speechlessness you suffer when witnessing something amazing; the sensation of catching someone in a lie; the joy at seeing someone you love return from a long trip. These are the sorts of emotions that are difficult to understand or, even more importantly, express, unless you’ve had the pleasure (or displeasure) or experiencing them yourself.

A keen observer of others will be able to simulate these emotions without having experienced them themself.  By the same measure, a good writer will be able to adapt emotions from certain experiences and reshape them to others. You don’t have to have been stalked by a serial killer with a knife to understand what fear feels like. But you do have to have known fear to make such a scene believable.

What is evident, however, is that ultimately your collective understanding of these experiences and emotions will not grow by sitting in front of your computer screen 24/7. Sure, that’s where the magic happens, but it’s not necessarily where the original concepts originate.

When I travel I’m reminded that the process of writing is not entirely solitary, that experiences constitute a great part of final product.  The frustration at delayed flights, the anticipation of seeing old friends, the admiration of great monuments, the sadness of concentration camps, the numbness of my toes on a below zero day.

These are things I ‘know’. Things I store in my creative bank and later squander liberally in my writing because they are what make stories believable. Even if it’s a story about a superhero mathematician who misses her flight and ends up freezing her toes off in a concentration camp governed by pink horses. If the reader can relate to the details, the emotions, then it doesn’t matter what you don’t know, because the bits that you do will carry it through.

Needless to say, the other benefit of travelling is the people you meet and observe along the way. Airports are a great place to people watch and ask yourself questions. Where is he going? Why is she wearing 12 inch heels on a plane? Is he sad because he’s leaving or because he’s just arrived?

My point is that writing is not the exclusively solitary activity it makes itself out to be. Yes, only you can write the words down in a fashion that makes your story the next bestseller.  But don’t forget to actually live. Travel. Strive to ‘know’ more. Meet Mary Sue for that coffee. She might say something that gives you an idea for your next character. Her annoying brat of a child might spill chocolate milk all over your lap and scream for 20 minutes, therefore influencing your antagonist’s bitterness against small children. Maybe you’ll get caught in traffic or be smiled at by a stranger or see a strange lady in a feathered cap or smell fresh bread from the bakery or share a laugh with an old friend.

Who knows? But be a sponge. Absorb.  And when you get home?


36 comments on “W is for Writing

  1. katy, im loving your blog, wish i knew about it sooner!
    i write a bit and read a whole lot more.
    nice to find others who love stories as much as i do.


  2. I was once told by a teacher that the write what you know rule is god–because I had never broken a bone myself, I could never write about a character who broke a bone. I wouldn’t be able to describe it realistically enough for those who knew what breaking a bone actually felt like.

    I’ve never observed someone breaking their bones either. So I’m out of luck on your observation advice. Maybe my description would be based too much on cliches, but I’m sure I could describe the physical pain of it quite believably. Write what you know definitely needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

  3. Yes, yes, yes. Emotional truth must have a basis in experience. It need not be a precise match–who has really “felt someone else’s pain,” after all?–but it has to resonate with the experience of others enough to convey the feelings of the moment.

    One must do two things to be able to write: read and live. The rest is practice.

  4. I like to watch people too and imagine who they are, what they do for a living and where they come from. But it’s not just confined to airports — it happens at churches, shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, anyplace where I’m waiting to do something and is an excellent way of passing the time. And like you, I’ve found that writing inspiration often comes from these sources. Great post.

  5. I love your post! I totally agree with you have to experience life to learn how to write better. And ‘writing what you know’ means about emotions–not just experiences.

    Keep smiling,

    P.S. What’s the favorite place you’ve traveled to? Mine is New York City.

    • Thanks for your kind comment, Yawatta. I’ve only been to New York City once, when I was too young to remember, but it’s on the bucket list! My favourite place would have to be Edinburgh. I still dream about it!

  6. I often feel like I should be at home writing when I’m off having fun somewhere, but I agree with you that we do have to have experiences to write about! I remind myself of that thought and try to give myself some slack. I get ideas from friends and different experiences throughout the day. You are right that writing is not as solitary as we think it is. Very nice post!

  7. I’m a huge Hemingway fan because he told us to write what is true. We don’t need to hunt lions in Africa like he did but we have to really live and experience life to write well. To write honestly.

    Thanks for the post!! :)

  8. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Oh, and also, have you read Steven King’s On Writing? I’m not a horror fan, so I wasn’t drawn to this book immediately, but someone recommended it and it’s MARVELOUS. Easy to read. Wise. So worth the time…

    • I have! Brilliant book. I was the same, not sure if it would be for me not having read any of his work previously or being interested in horror, but there are some gems of advice in that book. In fact, I should probably read it again soon. Thanks for the reminder, Gretchen!

    • It’s only been two months since I got back and already I’m itching to have more travel adventures! How will we support this addiction Penny?! :)

  9. So true. Inspiration is a coffee shop…or the supermarket checkout line…or a trip to the shore….basically, it’s everywhere and it’s happening all the time. Great post.

  10. The day I rose from my writing chair and looked down to find that the leather didn’t puff back up, I thought to myself: “Houston, we have a problem.”

    SInce then — though my chances of ever stepping on an airplane range somewhere between the slim and none — I make a point to get out and see things; even uncomfortable or strange things. I attempt to take to a coffee shop or locale instead of hunkering down in my cave. As human-beings we are innately drawn to the familiar and comfortable. There is nothing wrong with liking things a certain way, but what a great loss, that a person should miss out on enriching experiences because something was different.

    Thanks, Katy, really enjoyed this post!

    ~ Cara

    • Cara, your first line made me laugh. I know the feeling! And you’re absolutely right, what a loss that someone should miss out because they’re afraid to leave their comfort zone. And you definitely don’t need to step on a plane to see things…sounds like you’re making the most of every opportunity. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Happy writing!

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