Thursday, June 29, 2017

Growing as a Writer

At each Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA residency I attend, opening night is punctuated with a question that is designed to foster discussion throughout the week. We're supposed to use these questions if we finish our critique sessions and discover that we have time left over. It happens. The question at this residency was especially poignant, so I figured I'd discuss it here too. Quite simply:

How do you continue to grow as a writer?

The question, while directed at the students, is appropriate for every writer. The question actually was "How do you continue to grow as a writer once you no longer have grad school breathing down your neck," but it is appropriate for anyone who fancies themselves a writer. And there were lots of good suggestions. Form a writing group. Attend conferences. Write every day. Everything that was stated was geared toward the writing life and the output for which we all strive. But there was something that I felt wasn't mentioned. Something so simple, most people don't think of it.


"I'm going on an adventure!" -Bilbo Baggins

Let me explain.

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm a big proponent of primary research, which is a fancy term which means "experiencing the things you write about." It's different from the old chestnut of "write what you know" in that you go and research things. "Know what you write," if you will. It's well-documented that I've done some interesting (silly, weird) things in the name of primary research.  How does this relate to my advice? Simple.

Every experience you have makes you grow as a person.

Think about that phrase for a moment. Every. Experience. Things you love, things you hate, pain, pleasure, fear, exhilaration... They all do one thing: They add to the tapestry that is your life. They give you experiences upon which to draw. They change your perspective, micron by micron. They make your life experience richer, and allow you to know things that others might not know. In short, they help you develop into a more well-rounded person.

Those experiences also make you grow as a writer. They allow you to draw upon the emotions you felt, the revulsion, the joy, the fear... All of it. And they allow you to write with more authenticity. They allow you to reach into your own personal history of experience and distill it down for the world to experience.

So that's my advice to you. Live. Live fully. Live out loud. Live boldly. Have those experiences. Try these on for size:

  • See something on a menu you've never had?  Try it. If you hate it, use the experience. 
  • Make a point to visit a new restaurant every month. One with cuisine you've not tried. 
  • Go camping. 
  • Walk around the city about which you're writing. 
  • Go to a concert for a band you've never heard of. 
  • Take up a sport.
  • Learn to shoot.
  • Learn to ride.
  • Find out what it's really like to walk around in armor.
  • Find out how long you can actually swing a sword. 
Take the back road to your next destination. Stop along the way. Love with all your heart and let it get broken. Talk to people who know about your novel's subject. Here's an example:  Two students this past term (whose names I won't divulge here because I've already bragged on them in public enough) followed this path long before I suggested it. One of them went camping, alone, in the UP of Michigan. Did I mention she went BY HERSELF? Because she did. She said it was the most scared she'd ever been, and now she has an amazing point of view to write about. The other one wanted to know about suspension piercing. While she didn't go to that extreme, she did contact a local BDSM group and had them tie her up and suspend her from the ceiling. She now knows what that's like. How many of you out there know? I'm betting the number is small (though probably larger than I expect). 

So that's it. Live. Live boldly. Explore your tastes, your passions, your emotions. Build your tapestry of experiences, and live without boundaries. And then use those experiences in your fiction. Go out and dare yourself to be amazing.