I’ve blogged at length about how a writer’s life experience can improve their fiction, but I haven’t written on how the reverse is true, how fantasy can improve a writer’s reality. If the responsibility of writing weighs you down use it as an excuse to go outside and do something.
A Life Worth Commenting On
In screenwriting class our professor had us keep a journal, a place to document our fears. It was not a diary. It was a tool for scene building, a method for adding authenticity to atmospheric descriptions. We were to venture into unknown territory and write about it, to find a place that put us on edge, where the adrenaline heightened our senses, so we could chronicle everything we felt.
Turns out a lesbian bar wasn’t that far outside of my comfort zone, not because I was leering at the ladies, but because they seemed fine with me. Their DJs had good taste, the absence of frat boy posturing was freeing, and I even got drawn into a dance off (author’s note: if your best move is the moon walk save it for the end).
From there I went ghost hunting in caves along the Mississippi. The city had filled the entrance in with rubble, which meant we had to crawl with our backs covered in limestone and our chests full of gravel. It also meant the tunnels had poor ventilation. We risked running out of air and joining the spirits we were pursuing (author’s note: if you decide to venture into these caves, DON’T, but if you do bring your own oxygen).
I followed some friends onto a high bridge in the middle of the night. We were half way across the St. Croix River when a train came. Our legs dangled over the side, like we were reenacting a scene from The Lost Boys. The waters raged 180 feet bellow. If I leaned back I’d have gotten a metal massage. We had to wait for a fifteen minute eternity as the boards quaked beneath our asses (author’s note: I’ve always been afraid of heights and I consider this experience proof that fear aversion therapy doesn’t work).
These locations were beyond what my professor had in mind. Writers don’t need to go to such extremes for inspiration, but they should, to quote comedian Pete Holmes, try to “live a life worth commenting on.” This is something many of us forget to do while we’re sitting in silence working. As writers we want to prove we have what it takes to go the distance, but we have a habit of being so driven that we pass life by.
Many of us use our vocation to justify isolation. We’re less afraid to write 2,000 words a dialogue than we are to have an actual conversation. We’re less afraid to write a death scene than to go through a new life experience. Our therapeutic outlet takes up the majority of our time.
Life is Research
Colleges require students to take generals because they want to produce well rounded individuals, graduates who are more than their majors. This might be an excuse to squeeze more money out of students, but writers should take a page from these academic institutions.
Authors need a versatile knowledge pool to write about other professions with an heir of authority. I read a lot of social psychology nonfiction to inform my writing, but I find the best information comes from friends. If you’re having trouble turning off your drive to write, think of socializing as part of your process.
In the same way a great book can be a conversation starter so can a great work in progress. Survey your friends on issues raised by your story. They might help bring your characters more emotional authenticity.
Use writing as an excuse to pay attention to people. Listen to them vent. Note how they talk differently when they’re in the heat of the moment, and how they frame their memories once they’re past them.
Reconnect with friends in interesting professions. You’ll learn more about the physical reality of ERs by talking to an EMT than you will combing through wikipedia. You’ll learn more about criminal investigations talking to a retired detective than you will watching a marathon of cop dramas.
Use research as an excuse to call your parents. You’ll get more emotional material talking to people who’ve lived through events of their era than by watching the history channel.
This shouldn’t feel like a chore. It should be a springboard to have interesting conversations. Research should enhance your life just as much as it enhances your work.
How to use Everyday Conversations as Research
There are ways to get ideas from your friends without quoting them verbatim. There are ways to capture their spirits without having to pay likeness rights. Pay attention to the behaviors your pals are not aware of. Ask yourself questions like this:
- Do you have a friend who can’t help but slip new fifty cent buzz words into casual conversation?
- How do they react when you tell them they’ve been misusing the word all along?
- Do they blame their word-a-day calendar or do they argue for their warped definition?
- Do they insert phrases they just learned into every discussion?
- Can you trace the phrase to the movie, book, or Ted Talk they got it from?
- Do you have a friend who refuses to censor themselves no matter their surroundings?
- Do they notice the angry looks they’re getting?
- Do they double down on their polarizing statements or do they backpedal when they realize they have an audience?
- Have you ever caught a friend trying to pass a political pundit’s words off as their own thought?
- What does their expression look like when they do this?
- Do they pretend to form the words in real time when you know they’re really quoting something?
- Have they ever misquoted their sources?
- How do they respond when you call them out on this?
- Do you know someone who can’t help but over share on a first date?
- Do they lead with a conversation about their crazy exes?
- Do they go on about an interest their date doesn’t share?
- Do they intentionally put embarrassing details about themselves out their to test to see how much their date can tolerate?
- How are they at handling their date’s own embarrassing details?
Learn to ask these kinds of questions. Make use of your friend’s truth or dare answers. These are the details that inform characterization.
Writers need support systems outside of their fiction. Sometimes we spend so much time thinking about our hero’s needs we fail to look out for number one. You have to have a vested interest in the well being of other people if you want to write characters worth caring about. You have to exercise empathy in the real world if you want to write sympathetic characters in your fiction. You have to try to live a life worth commenting on.
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11 thoughts on “How to Keep Writing From Weighing Your Life Down”
Your post reminded me of John Hegarty, who said those who work in a fictional world, must live in the real world. I agree with every word. Nice post, thanks!
Thank you kindly. I’ll have to looks some of those John Hegarty’s quotes up, that and dig into the rest of his work. Thanks!
Man, my heart raced thinking about your adventures. I’m all for trying new and comfort-zone-testing things in life – not only as writers looking for material, but just as people remembering what it means to really be ALIVE in the first place.
It reminded me of Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” Miller has written many very successful books. A movie company got the idea to write a screenplay about his memoirs, “Blue Like Jazz.” But he found that they wanted to change everything about his character and his life. When he asked why they needed to change everything, they responded bluntly: “Your real life is boring.” It was then that Miller – a hugely successful writer by all accounts – realized that they were right. “All I do is sit in my basement and write stuff,” Miller reflected. From that point, he decided to lose weight, hike Machu Picchu (the hard way), and do a transcontinental bike tour to raise money for charity.
In short, Don realized that as a writer, his own life was nothing to write about. He encourages readers to ask themselves this: “If your life were made into a movie, would anyone want to watch? Or would they be bored stiff, leave halfway through and want their twelve bucks back?”
Great thoughts, Drew. And I enjoyed learning a little more about the “real life” you, outside of writing.
Yes. “Many of us use our vocation to justify isolation.” Life is research. Fantastic post.
I’ve been abusing my vocation as a tool for isolation for too long. Recently I realized just how useful conversations with friends and family can be, both for my writing and piece of mind. Thanks so much for reading.
Reblogged this on A Father, Writer, and Logistics Wizard and commented:
Fantastic post. Have to share.
Thank you kindly. Glad you liked it enough to share!
Love “Live A Life Worth Commenting On” ! That’s my goal. Step outside my comfort zone and make history.
Reblogged this on DEATH BY GINA and commented:
Thanks for this post, Drew. Good advice reminding me I have to get up from my writing desk and out of my comfort zone and go and do stuff. I admire Tara Moss who has done what you have suggested. She has undertaken a Private Investigator course and engaged in all manner of risk taking pursuits to expand her life experience in order to bring realism to her writing.
This is a fantastic post and full of good points. I’m not sure I’d want to go crawling through caves in search of inspiration but it’s a good reminder to actually see a bit of life!
Interesting post. If we make an effort to experience and observe, the “real” world is full of everyday adventure and relational fodder. Your so right that it enhances our fictional characters and worlds.