The Writer in the Attic is Boring: Why Volcanoes, Falling in Love and Puppies Are Valid Career Investments


Aaron CrossYou are the writer that you’ve created yourself to be. You’ve probably heard of the ‘nature versus nurture’ argument. There’s not much most of us can do about the nature part, unlike Aaron Cross in Bourne Legacy. We’re not going to get an upgrade on the original hardware.

But there’s a lot we can do with the software, with the apps and data we enter into our brains going forward.

If there’s a kind of story you want to be telling, then you need to be living the life that’s going to make you into the story teller that can tell that story.

Lopping a treeOne of my favorite authors as a teenager was Louis L’Amour. He wrote primarily westerns, the kind of books that came in paper backs and were thin, fast reads. I don’t know how many of those stories I read. His worlds were real, his characters vivid and the action believable. As a history buff, I never ran into any of his facts that were out of line.

Then I discovered his life. He’d lived a lively one, from skinning cattle and inspecting mines to serving in WWII and traveling the world as a merchant seaman. The people and experiences that colored his life bled through vividly in the stories he told on paper. He may never have studied the art of writing in any sort of creative writing program, but he had learned and experienced life and the human experienced in a visceral manner that was impossible to miss in his work.

Without those years of knocking about the world and struggle, L’Amour would never have told the stories he did.

When I look back on my own work, everything before I left my parents house is basically training wheels and scribbling. It needed to be done and it wasn’t horrible, considering my age, but the depth of experience and the range of characterization and understanding of life itself is sincerely lacking. I can see myself as I was back then reaching for the heart of the story but never actually it. I simply hadn’t lived broadly and deeply enough.

Make it throughI didn’t write love well until I fell passionately in love. I didn’t understand lust until I experienced it. Honestly, Knyght has ruined me for most genre romance. Reality is so much better and so much more painful. Betrayal was just an idea until it happened and forgiveness was something the pastor talked about in church until I really needed to forgive someone. Loneliness was something passed over quickly in the movies until I turned around one day and realized that I hadn’t been touched by another human in five months. The thrill of meeting strangers and sharing a drink was a fairytale until I spent hours trading stories with a few.

The tale is locked inside every storyteller but the key is experience.

When I was younger, I hung onto each story idea with both hands, afraid someone would take it, afraid to lose my one big chance. Now that I’ve been writing for several years, meeting people, watching the world news and experiencing existence, I don’t worry about anyone stealing my concept. No one can tell the story the same way I would tell it, and no one can understand where I would take my fantasy world like I can. My writing DNA is crisscrossed with the scars and tattoos of having breathed and loved and moved.

There will always be more stories.

More cataclysmic moments.

If you’re not telling the story you want to tell, what are you doing outside your keyboard, that would make you the kind of person who could tell the stories you want to tell.

It might seem insane until you do it, but walking off a plane in a foreign country with nothing but an address and a smattering of the language to get to a place over a hundred miles away could be the best thing you’ve ever done for your writing career.

Hobbiton So get off the keyboard. Take a hike across a volcano if you’re near one. Go volunteer at a animal shelter. Fall in love. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for your characters, your readers, your career. Take a walk on your wild side. No one would have heard of Frodo if he stayed at home. No one reads about normal days.

We’ve all been standing in a room at one point or another, telling a story, and suddenly realize, no one was listening.

It’s a sinking, sickening feeling. Your voice trails off, and you pretend to be drinking your juice or abruptly interested in someone else’s conversation. You realize you’ve been telling a story that doesn’t matter to anyone but yourself. Which do you want to hear me talk about, my brother rescuing people from a mudslide in Washington last month, or my afternoon trip to a tourist town?

The rescue story, of course. There’s a human element to it. There’s something you can invest in and root for the conclusion. The tourist town story; well, it’s hardly a story. It’s an event and it didn’t happen to you. What do you care?

If you want to be the kind of person people enjoy listening to, then you need to be telling the kind of stories people take the time to hear. We like to watch puppy videos on Youtube and follow crazy murder trials on the news. We really don’t want to read a teenaged girl’s diary.

Unless she turns out to be a princess or an undercover angel of death, or possibly be battling cancer.

I’m not saying to wait around for your loved one to die or go join a guerrilla gang in the Congo. But you can consciously choose to embrace life and experience. Fight for what you want. Love who you’re drawn to. Take a risk. Do what you’re afraid of doing. Really, do it. I dare you.

They were watching for the enemy. If all else fails, ask yourself what your characters would do. Secretly, they’re all facets of you.

Until you’ve lived, until you’ve done something, you have nothing to say that the rest of us want to hear. We’re all looking for that spark, that little extra bit of truth that can’t be faked. We, the readers, know the difference, even if we can never actually say what it is. Don’t expect me to want to read two hundred pages of beautifully crafted words where nothing happens. No matter how literary, I don’t care. Same goes for grammar. Perfect grammar doesn’t count unless you can make me feel something. There’s a reason genre fiction does so well, it’s about people living, fantastically or not.

So live the life that will make you the writer you want to be. Or if you’re on the other side of the scale, take off the gloves and put all that experience on the paper.


Photo Credits: 

Aaron Cross –

Hobbiton –×475.jpg

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4 Responses to The Writer in the Attic is Boring: Why Volcanoes, Falling in Love and Puppies Are Valid Career Investments

  1. Gene'O says:

    Reblogged this on The Writing Catalog and commented:
    Here’s a post worth reading. I have a slightly different take on the whole experience thing, but even so, this is a home run.

  2. Gene'O says:

    Awesome. A few things:

    My early writing is much like yours. I cringe at the naivete when I read my early stuff. But, as you say, absolutely necessary. A big part of writing is being willing to fail repeatedly until you figure out how to succeed.

    Neil Gaiman says everyone has at least one book inside them, if only they could figure out a way to get it out. I’m paraphrasing – the exact quote is out there somewhere, and it’s a good one.

    I like the way you use L’Amour here. I read most of his books as a teenager – he’s pretty much all my dad read for about 15 years. They read like short stories, and I think you’re right about the characterization and the authenticity of the details.

    I’d add a piece of advice, because everyone can’t go skinning cattle and hopping the globe with the military. You should be spending your reading time reading things to help you write the story you want to write. I read lots about Europe from the Renaissance to WWI, and lots about diplomacy. Because the story I’ve wanted to tell all my life is a story of dynastic intrigue. That story is set in a fantasy world, but families are families, and power is power, no matter what world the story is set in.

    Nice images, too. It’s just an all-around great post.

  3. Ciara Darren says:

    Love the reference to your experience as a reader. Agreed. I have felt the same, but never really considered it in that that light! The more we experience period, the richer everything is. I wouldn’t beat yourself up either, for the hiatus. The development of a writer takes time. The trick is to know when you need time and when you need to put your fingers to the keyboard.

  4. Great post! What immediately came to mind while I was reading – along the same lines of your nature-nurture comparison – was the subtle difference between that old chestnut “Write what you know” and the perhaps more instructive “Know what you write”. Like nature-nurture, I suppose the right balance of both is truly needed.

    I too have noticed an increasing richness in the emotions I’m able to convey in my writing after having experienced said emotion firsthand in real life. This is why I don’t beat myself up too much about having previously taken a 6-year hiatus from my current writing project, for I know I hadn’t lived enough and enjoyed/endured enough of what I was writing about to do the story justice.

    As a reader, I notice this stuff as well: when I read of something I’ve actually experienced that is well-written and convincing, it resonates with me so much stronger, and convinces me the author has experienced it too.

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