Doing and observing

Back when I was an undergrad we had a guest speaker in my novel writing class. One of the first things he did was ask us “what are you doing here?” His thought was that if we wanted to be writers we should be out living life. I’ve thought about that over the years, and I think it’s not just living life, but rather learning life that we need to be doing.

Sure, there are lots of things that writers can learn in a classroom: Grammar, spelling, formatting, etc. It’s all important stuff, but there really are other things you need to learn. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction you need to get away from your writing desk, and actually into life.

Doing and observing

If you’re going to write convincingly about anything you need some experience. If you’re going to write a decent western you might want to at least hold a six shooter. And maybe even fire one! If you’re going to write about building a boat it might be helpful to actually build a boat.

But, what about the things you can’t do?

Right now I’m working on a novel where one of the two central characters is a 14 year old girl. Short of having a sex change and going back in time, how do I pull that off?

This is where observing comes in. Watch what people around you do. Maybe even talk to them about what they’re doing and why. Yes, this can be difficult. Even the physicists have learned that you can change behavior by measuring it. So, the trick is to learn how to observe without affecting behavior any more than you have to (and without crossing moral, ethical and legal lines hopefully…).

Even if you’re observing you have to live.

It’s true. Even if you’re observing you have to live. To write based on observation requires the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. It requires the ability to empathize.

Fortunately there are a lot of shared commonalities between people. Discovering and experiencing these commonalities is part of what allows us to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” as we write.

I might never have been a 14 year old girl, but that doesn’t make my character Jamie a complete alien. We both want to be loved, desired, and appreciated. We both have people we value and experiences that are good, bad, embarrassing, or exhilarating.

As a writer you need to develop a breadth of experience that allows you to understand the things you observe and learn. This is part of what allows you to get into the minds of readers and characters, and to communicate what needs to be communicated.

So, dear reader, I’m not going to ask what you’re doing here, there is lots of ‘writer stuff’ to learn. But, I do encourage you to get ‘out there’ as well; because, there is a lot of life stuff to be learned in being a writer too.

That’s it for this one dear reader. See you next week.

Until then:

  • Choose life
  • Avoid death
  • Discover something unexpected

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