How to be a writer when you aren’t writing

So, I’ve refrained from giving writing advice on this website, mainly because I’m not a published fiction writer. So, it’s sort of like a losing politician giving campaign advice. Still, I’ve seen a lot of things, and I think about writing a lot even when I’m not writing. Anyway, I’m breaking my “No writing advice from an amateur” rule because I think these things may be helpful.

1) Leave your phone at home. My wife and I used to love to watch people in the airport or the mall. We would make up back-stories, or just laugh at the vast array of personalities. It helps us to understand a slightly deeper layer of humanity simply by watching. You won’t get this from playing “Angry Birds” or “Scrabble” on your phone. Put it away. Watch.

2) Really experience the moment you are in. Hemingway gave this as his writing advice as well: “Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” There’s a lot being said here. Stop in the moment, whether good or bad, and consider what makes that moment. Look at the people around you, the setting, the things that led to you being there. Sometimes, one little detail makes all the difference. The pleasant conversation may be ruined by the wart, sitting like a cocoa crispy, on the girl’s lip, or it may be awkward because she’s having a wardrobe malfunction and you are trying to keep from looking. File it away, then write it down as fast as you can. Which leads to:

3) Keep a notebook/journal. You can use a phone or whatever as well, but when you realize something important or come up with an idea, you need a place to keep it. Too much stuff spills out of my head every day for me to rely on “remembering”.

4) Take time every day to write the details of a scene. When I know something special or interesting is about to happen, I try to get to a quiet spot and write what I’m experiencing. It doesn’t have to be something unique to be special. A storm, a pleasant summer evening on the porch with your dogs, heroin-induced hallucinations of a naked Madeleine Albright skydiving with Willie Nelson… all have positive and negative aspects. You will never be in a better position to record the minutiae of that moment than while you are still within it.

5) Don’t become attached to your computer. Research isn’t always started in Wikipedia. Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks in a hell I can’t even imagine working in the meat-packing district of Chicago in 1903 before he wrote “The Jungle”. The details he got, the characters he developed, were not things he could have gotten from a google search. Get out there and live the scene, THEN write it. We have more ability to do this than we realize sometimes. Within an hour’s drive, most all of us have strip clubs, casinos, fancy restaurants, theaters, seedy alleys, blues bars, waffle houses… whole hosts of places that are almost certain to help bring your scene closer to reality.

That’s my short list. Writing is a great thing, but it gets lonely when we just drown in it. If you sit at a computer all day you are going to have a difficult time writing about people, unless you are writing about people that sit at their computer all day. And who wants to read that?



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2 responses to “How to be a writer when you aren’t writing

  1. Good advice. I’ve still got loads of scraps of paper that need typing up from all the note-taking!

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