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?