As much as I adore the process of writing and editing, there are other ways to improve my writing skills. When writing, it becomes very easy to be trapped within myself and forget about the outside world. This inevitably causes my plots and my characters to lose some of their sparkle, their life. The inside of my head my be expansive, but characters need a little more room than my cranium can offer.
With that in mind, I have to make sure that I delve deeply into my life. After all, I write because the experience of being human is so beautiful, so terrible, and often so utterly mundane that I can’t help but want to capture it. But it is easy to forget the qualities of humanness when sitting in front of a computer and typing for hours on end. I hate the concept of writing what you know – it has become trite and ill-used – but I think there remains power in using what you know to write.
I have a couple of unofficial rules that I use to keep myself connected to my plot and to the humanity (and inhumanity) of my characters.
1.) Be afraid – I don’t mean that I have to take up cliff diving or face down wild alligators. (Both of those things are unlikely to happen.) I just do things that frighten me a little. Take an extra risk. Go up to the stranger at the bar and talk to them. Show my work to someone I want to impress.
2.) Disagree with people – But don’t simply have arguments with them on the internet. When I discover that I disagree with people, I have to try to figure out why they have the opinions that they do. What is the saying, ‘no one is the villain of their own story’? So I consider why people hold differing opinions. I can use their rationale in my writing. I listen not only to what people say but to why they say it.
3.) Go new places – It is so dreadfully easy to fall into ruts, to go to the same places, eat the same foods. My lunches are dreadfully repetitive. But the world contracts when I allow myself to fall too deeply into patterns. So I try a new food or see a new place even if it is just around my neighborhood. The jolt of the new experience helps keep me wondering, imagining. If my life becomes very small, often my writing does too.
4.) Be physical – This doesn’t mean I have to be extraordinarily athletic – there is no danger of that happening – but I use whatever senses I have. Feel things, touch them, taste them, smell them, see them. Even if I have interacted with those items a thousand times, I try to discover them anew. There is a portion of Girl with the Pearl Earring where Griet, the protagonist, attempts to see what colors make up the trees, the sky. Though bark is brown, she sees greens, yellows, purples in it as well. Practicing alternate forms of experiencing the world helps to enrich descriptions in writing. One of my favorite ways to do this is by using scents. I never considered myself a lover of perfume, but recently the different facets of scent have enthralled me. How I use smells to capture a place, a time, a feeling, and project that on to people and the world.
All of these tricks come down to one simple idea; that I have to make sure that I am deeply involved in the experience of living my own life. I have to allow myself to feel things even the unfortunate ones. How can I write about pain, and pleasure, and fear, and grief, and rapture if I don’t allow myself to feel them?
These little rules can feel a bit self-indulgent – after all, who needs to remind themselves to taste the food they are eating – but I’ve found that they help ground me.
I feel like I can’t be alone in needing to consciously think about life. Are there ways that you prevent yourself from becoming too bogged down in your writing? What do you do to tell richer stories?
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This post was originally published August 28, 2016.