Last week, I spoke via Skype to an English class at Seton Hill University about my books and writing. Someone asked about my best advice for aspiring writers. After my first answer, which was “Well, you have to actually write,” I talked about the importance of collecting experiences. It’s possible I advised these impressionable young minds that they should hang out with biker gangs and get themselves arrested. I was, of course, speaking metaphorically.*
But not really.
A lot of people think that all you need to be a writer is a writing instrument (pen, laptop, whatever) and a degree in English. Only one of those is true.
You ask me, I’ll tell you writers need both of the following: An amazing imagination and lots of life experience. I told those kids that if they’re choosing their degrees my advise would be to pick something other than English. Want to write mysteries? Study law or criminology. Want to write excellent character driven fiction? Study psychology. See what I mean?
However, I don’t really think a degree of any sort is necessary. The school of life can teach you everything you need. By embracing adventure, you can’t help but improve your fiction.
As writers, it’s our job to provide readers with a virtual experience. We mine our own experiences and visceral memories to inform the reactions of our characters. Sometimes we simply take a feeling we had and turn up the volume. Other times we share something we did verbatim and call it fiction. Regardless, our memories, experiences and knowledge constantly inform our stories.
I don’t have regular hobbies. Long before I realized I was a writer, I pursued a veritable cornucopia of hobbies. Interior decorating (fail!), cross stitch (fail!), embroidery (fail!), sewing (epic fail!), etc, etc, etc (fail, fail, fail). What I eventually realized is that my hobby was taking classes and learning new things. Now that I’m a writer, I indulge this interest in more interesting ways.
In service of my fiction I have shot guns, walked through graveyards, studied esoteric arts, attended roller derby matches, taken language classes, studied self defense and kick boxing, and traveled all over. I tell people it’s all for the writing, but in reality the writing just gives me an excuse to pursue my fancies. The work feeds my life and the life feeds the work.
Right now I’m enrolled in a Citizen’s Police Academy. For thirteen weeks, I will learn how cops do their jobs. This isn’t a sit-in-a-classroom thing. We get behind-the-scenes tours of facilities, to drive cop cars through a tactical course, to do a ride-along, to meet K9 units and narcotics squads,etc. The best part? This is my job.
I’ve often said that writers are both participants and observers in life. I have a colleague who told a story of being loaded into ambulances after car accident and even as she was scared and in pain, the writer part of her brain was taking note of the layout of the ambulance and the traits of the EMTs for later use. For a more mundane example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been speaking to a group of readings while simultaneously filing away interesting body language tells or physical traits into my mental database. Writers are supposed to be crazy, so use that an an excuse to try things you never would have tried before.
I guess my point today is that life is the best writing teacher. Get out into the world. Open your arms and embrace every opportunity (within reason–don’t break the law or hurt anyone, please). Use the writing as your excuse if you want, but you might just find the adventures you undertook to improve your stories also improve your own personal story.
What’s the craziest class or experience you’ve pursued for a story?
*And by metaphorically, I of course mean, I’m covering my ass in case any parents come after me.