Writers can’t be writers without reading. It’s been said many times before by writers more talented, more prolific, and more famous than me. I don’t disagree. In order to be a decent writer, reading as often as you can is paramount.
I also feel that another important element of being a decent writer is never mentioned.
Writers can’t be writers without living.
Things that I take pride in are my character development, character interactions, and dialogue. I feel that these are three things in my writing that I do pretty well. I feel that I understand people well, so I am able to translate that to the page well.
Learning that skill is achieved through living.
Look, I’m an introvert. I’m also terminally shy at times. There are moments when my confidence is high, I am full of energy, and I can interact with people far beyond my own expectations. That happens five percent of the time. Every other time I’m in a social situation, I can be awkward–until I warm up to the person/people I am interacting with. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few years.
Regardless, I struggle with interpersonal relationships at times. My social battery is rarely fully charged, and I simply try to do my best in every social situation in which I find myself. I usually do all right, but I’m always a ball of nerves. I straighten my spine, pull from my reserves of courage and social battery, and charge forth.
You win some, you lose some, but you lived a little life and learned more about people.
That’s all that matters.
And it’s integral to being a writer.
To write believable characters–even over-the-top cackling villains in speculative fiction–you have to understand how people work. The way they interact with others. What makes them get up in the morning. Hopes, goals, dreams, likes, dislikes, etc., that build their personality and belief system.
You have to pay attention to how people actually speak to each other in casual conversations, business interactions, and formal occasions to get the dialogue right. Two old friends on the phone will never speak to each other the way two work colleagues will in a meeting. In order to know this, and then replicate it in your writing, you have to observe.
You have to live.
I get my spark as a writer from shutting my mouth (a Herculean feat for me at times) and simply paying attention. Observing. Being a creep at times.
Sitting in my favorite bakery/coffee shop and listening to people at other tables have their private conversations is invaluable research. Of course, I try not to be too invasive–and I always pretend I’m doing something besides listening–but I borrow from strangers. If you’re someone who writes in a language that is not your first, this is an even more valuable exercise. It teaches you how people in the language actually interact. It immerses you in the actual culture, and not what is considered “proper” speech. It teaches a writer to be more genuine with their characters and their interactions.
Staying silent and paying attention not only helps me observe others and hone my character writing skills, it often creates sparks in other ways.
Over the years I’ve learned that inspiration (that “spark”) comes from the unlikeliest of places. One never knows what might kindle a little creative fire at the back of their brain.
I’ve mentioned this in blog posts before, but A SURPLUS OF LIGHT was inspired by a single quote from THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls.
“One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by.”
Suddenly, a story about two different boys only having a friendship during the summers of their high school years began brewing in my brain. If I hadn’t been reading that book, focusing on what I was doing at the moment, and blocking out everything else…who knows? I probably never would have thought of or written the book.
I was living my life, reading a wonderful book, and open to any spark that ignited. I wasn’t pounding away at a keyboard, getting frustrated when things weren’t quite working, and hating myself for not being good enough.
So, go write your words. But don’t forget to read. Don’t forget to live. Don’t forget to give your spark an opportunity to be lit. Hiding behind the screen for hours on end, and becoming increasingly frustrated is a surefire way to make sure you write fewer words.
Tremendous Love & Thanks