I think it was Hannah Brencher who said that writers aren’t people who are good at writing about life; they’re the people who’ve gotten really good at living. There is a ring of truth to her words. You can’t write if you’re not living anything. We can all see how true it is for non-fiction; you can’t write what you haven’t experienced. But I think it’s true for fiction too. You can’t write about lives in any believable way if you’re not living in the thick of them. How can you create people if you don’t live with people, love people, mingle with them and celebrate with them and mourn and dance and eat and take long walks with them? There is a vibrancy and a grittiness to real life that we can’t ever write if we don’t ever live it first.
There’s a lot of reasons this is hard, but can we just talk about two of them for a second? 1. It’s easy to get caught up in our own heads, trying to write and stumbling against our own lack of experience without realizing it. 2. It’s also easy to swing the other direction, to get so caught up in trying to live a life we can write about that we forget to just live, to be present and unguarded, to be alive in the moments that will later become the stories we have to tell, without having taken notes on or wondered at them as they happened.
I’ve done both of those before: lately I’ve been living all in my own head, trying to write about life without sinking my teeth into the meat of it myself. It’s a cyclone of an existence. I think of John Green’s book Turtles All the Way Down where he opens up about his experience of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how it becomes, for him, a whirlpool of thoughts spiraling tighter and tighter in dangerous directions that feel completely beyond his control. On a very different scale and in a manner very much more IN my control, that is what it’s like to live stuck inside my head, and maybe anyone’s head. When you close the doors and sit down to analyze what you have without letting in light, fresh air or new ideas, you spiral around and around in the same frustrations, fears, and failures.
I began to come out of that shell late this summer. One day during camp, I walked outside onto the sunlit deck and stood, soaking in the morning warmth for a moment. There were kiddos already running back and forth, but there were also mamas. And they were sitting. There were cups of coffee on the arms of their chairs. They weren’t just wiggling their toes in the sunshine before they walked back inside to do the dishes, they were sitting outside drinking deep from the cup of mountain air and children’s playtime and mama-friendship that life was holding up to them in that moment. And I had almost missed it. I had been missing it most of the summer. I don’t want to miss moments like that for the rest of my life; they’ll be the moments that come back in stories one day too. They’ll be the moments of conversation that inspires me, of wisdom that empowers me, of joy that refreshes me. Maybe quiet moments sipping coffee together won’t come up in dramatic retellings of the stories of my life, but they will influence and shape and nurture me as a writer all the same.
Learn to live, darling. Learn to look up from your desk in time to see a squirrel leap into the trees, learn to laugh at the weird, new, odd things your toddler does that could, if you’re not careful, drive you crazy. Learn to laugh so hard you pee a little and learn to cry when the people around you – your people – are crying too.
But I have a word of caution for you. As you learn to live, don’t think so deeply about it that you begin to spiral in on yourself again. Life is not a race to collect stories or a contest to acquire the richest material. There’s no prize to the one who’s lived in a tiny home and a mansion and also backpacked through Europe: you can live in a cul-de-sac and vacuum your split-level stairs every week and still be living the life that people need you to write about. Trust me on this.
When I moved to Colorado in my early twenties I believed that adventure was out there and I was going to find it. And I also believed that if I didn’t find it, I’d never be the writer I wanted to be. I’d never have the words or inspiration or opportunities that a writer needs if I wasn’t out there living the adventure that everyone wants to read about. It took me a very long time to realize how wrong I was. Adventure wasn’t just waiting in the wild aspects of a life few people get to live; adventure was waiting in the mundane, belly-laugh moments that everybody gets to live. I was given the adventure of a lifetime – the lifetime of one human being, which is always, always an adventure. I had no idea then how poignant, how rich, how write-able that one wild adventure would be. And wouldn’t you know it, here I am with two children and a tiny cottage where I can sit and watch the squirrels, where my toddler counts to ten and inserts “four” whenever he can’t remember what number comes next. Here I am with my one computer and the under-the-stairs bedroom that makes me feel slightly like Harry Potter, and the gallery wall of art complete with kitchen cooling racks that I use as photo grids. There is more adventure in my three red picket fence gates than in the life I thought I would have when I moved out here, single and hoping that a good story would find me.In all the advice that we give writers to sit down and write the thing, don’t forget to go out and live the thing too. I mean yeah, you won’t get far at all without plunking yourself down and opening a tab to your writing platform of choice, instead of streaming another episode. But you won’t get far streaming another episode anyway. You’ve got to be wildly, vastly, energetically present in this one grand life of yours. You can’t hope to write it if you don’t live it. So go live, darlings. Go live deep and real and hard and beautiful. Then we’ll write.