There are some pretty standard writing cliches out there that I always thought I agreed with. On the surface, I do. Some are just so much more profound than others.
Example: Write what you know. Yes. and no. Write what interests you. Write what you’re willing to research. Write what makes you excited to get to the page. Write what you want to read.
Example: Stick to one genre. I was never a fan of this one. If you are establishing your career by traditional or indie publishing, by all means, it’s very sound advice. I can’t do it. Haven’t done it except when two characters kept feeding me words until I had enough for four or five books. I admire those who can stick to a genre. It’s smart if you want to publish. I do, and plan to, and have to accept that my publishing career will look very different from someone who builds their name in one place to find an audience.
Then there’s the advice to put yourself into your work. I used to think that mostly meant the emotions we lend our characters and the recycling of our own life experiences.
Now I know the best advice I could give a new writer is to write naked. Soul naked. Give your characters your insecurities, your failures, your personal flaws, and more. I’ve been so filled with uncertainty, pain, loss, and overwhelm at various points of my life. Every artist–writer, actor, painter, song writer, and more–should find a way to channel those things into their work. It’s authentic. Raw. Real. Sometimes it’s cathartic or eye-opening. It resonates.
I think there’s a reason plenty of successful actors, writers, and song-writers were bullied or outcasts or something other than the popular kids who lived in one house in one town while growing up. How can you give voice to an outcast character if you’ve never been there? How can you give words to deep loss if you’ve never lost something? Not just in general terms, but really specific, personal ways. How does my character explain to her ex, as they are trying to get back together, that she will never go to Paris with him because she had dreamed of them going together and discovering together, and he went without her, just ten days before she could have gone, too. How does she try to explain the pain of his calling her from the Eiffel Tower or sending her photos of sidewalk cafes and the Sacre Coeur, and her horrified frustration as he cheerfully offers to see these places again as soon as she arrives?
How does she explain to him the heart ache, the loss, and the destruction of a dream, to try to get him to understand she might one day go to Paris alone, but it would be far too painful to go with him, and that it had nothing to do with forgiveness? That’s personal. Not Paris, but the emotion behind her circumstances…it’s deeply personal, the way I still feel that loss decades later.
That’s one really cool aspect of being a writer, though. I can take a dream my mother, grandmother, and I shared, and translate the fallout to my character. Likewise, I can take the experience of relationships that don’t last and “I’ll be here” as a meaningless phrase in the wake of the unexpected and tragic, and give that inner knowing to a character. Let it cause problems in his or her life.
We all have moments like that in our lives. Often painful and not something we want to revisit, those are powerful things to put into our writing. They absolutely do not need to be like for like. I have a relative who asked if it was easier to write about grief after my husband died. The answer is no, not really, because I’ve experienced grief before. It’s a nearly universal emotion. Loss of any kind, and the feelings it engenders, can be translated to loss of a specific kind in the lives of our characters. What did become easier, between his loss and the later fire, was writing about rebuilding and all the attendant losses that come with it as well as some of the good.
As creative people, we can leverage a broken toe into a broken leg, the uncertainty of career change into uncertainty of the fate of life as our characters know it, the pain of the smallest crisis in our own past into the dark night of a character’s soul. Take the fear of a child’s very high fever, add other experiences, and give your character the terror of something national or global. While it can be like for like, it doesn’t, and often isn’t, have to be. The fear of a child’s fever might simply translate into the fear of illness in your character.
All we have to do is let ourselves feel it when the character needs it, and then be brave enough to write it while vulnerable and naked, bathing in it.
I know, it sounds dramatic. it’s been on my mind as I read passages from other writers that pull tears to my eyes because I recognize that, identify with that…the experience and emotion given to the character. It’s been on my mind when I feel tears or rage or utter frustration as my characters draw on my own emotional repertoire. I’m probably writing this for myself more than anything, to remind myself of the quote by Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
This kind of vulnerability is also polarizing to talk about, especially on line. You’ll understand, or you won’t. I’m too reflective/emotional, or I’m explaining a truth that can be damn hard to get across. Whatever you decide, if you are a writer or other type of creator, I hope you remember this post when you look up from your own work and realize just how naked you are within it…
…and decide that’s just the way it should be.