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Writing is not for sissies. There. I said it.
Many people, when they envision the life of a writer, picture us clacking away on a typewriter in a Parisian garret, or else huddled over a PC keyboard, bleary eyes reflecting the dim illumination from without and the borderline lunacy from within. Yes, writing can be a lonely profession; there are long hours of isolation, and you occasionally need to listen more closely to the muse than the hubbub of the workaday world. There are days when you may go without seeing someone you care about. But the truth is, writing is generated from a place that is as far from lonely as Justin Bieber is from artistic legitimacy. Writers are like sculptors, taking a heavy plinth of stone and carving away the excess to reveal the beauty and truth trapped within.
In order to effectively chip away at these monoliths, writers rely on many tools. Our toolkits vary, but inside every one are the three basic tools: Observation, Imagination and Analysis. The mix of these three is what creates the nexus of inspiration that produces writing that is both effective and engaging. Without them, it is nigh-on impossible to extract the masterpiece from the bulk of stony chaos. Consider the following:
Observation. We are, as writers, encouraged from day one to “write what we know.” The problem with this is, of course, that nobody knows everything (no, not even Steve Jobs, no matter what he thinks), and when it comes to knowledge, and not mere raw information, we must rely both on our direct experience and observation. It is through observation that we see and understand our world, and by interpolating these observations we can, in turn, extrapolate from the information we garner greater understanding of both situational and general truth. We all haven’t been to the moon, or lost a loved one to violence, or saved children from a burning orphanage, but we can observe, speak with and learn from those who have. We use observation of others’ relationships to bring greater realism to those of the characters we create, or add details that bring verisimilitude to a scenario or character’s behavior. Observation is the first step in understanding our world, and thus aids us in our quest to create others. Which brings us to:
Imagination. The brain is a pretty badass organ. Despite being about 1/50th of the body’s weight, it uses around 1/5th of its total energy every day. For writers, it’s even higher, because so much of what we do occurs in the brain before pen ever touches paper or finger touches key. Writers of fiction and non-fiction alike rely on their imaginations constantly, not only for conjuring worlds where bees are the size of Volkswagens or alternate histories where, say, Dewey actually did defeat Truman, but to flesh out the worlds we create, and the beings with which we populate them. And of course, underneath it all, lying in wait like a tiger in the trees, is the hypothetical Reader, for whom, let us assume, all this artistic toil will eventually bear fruit. We are driven to tell the stories that the Universe whispers in our ears, and thus our imaginations must be well-honed and limber, able to expand to the horizon while maintaining their keen edge. Of course, even the most amazing idea in the world isn’t much help if you find yourself unable to convey it – and thus we also need:
Analysis. No, not that kind of analysis, although I’m sure many of my peers have also lain upon the sofa of some curious mental health professional (“OK, I think we have a lot to talk about, but first can you stop writing story ideas on the back of my National Geographics? Those are for everyone.”). No, I mean the sort of analysis that requires us to murder our darlings, as someone once said. Despite our reliance on the mystical and murky inner workings that produce the fables, foibles and fulsome fictions of free-flowing frivolity, it is with the cold steel blade of analysis that we must probe and prod our creations. We must be, to trot out the tiredest of near-dead horses, be our own harshest critics, because we have done something daring; we have chosen to expose, in permanent (or near-permanent) fashion, the insides of our minds, hearts and souls. When one is preparing one’s inner workings for public display, one must be unsparing with the blade and buff and polishing rag, because the diamond poorly cut will garner no accolades; the architecturally-unsound plane will fly only so far before crashing in flames and regret.
And thus we take up our tools and chip away, day after day, hoping we are bringing bright things into the sun, often for no more compensation than the satisfaction that comes with doing well a thing that must be done. No, writing is not for sissies, my friends, and for those of us who choose to pursue it, satisfaction, like inspiration, must be found first within.