Just like you are what you eat, you write what you live. While I believe that write what you know is a narrow way to approach the vast expanse of stories you could be telling, I do believe that our own experiences create a prism through which we see the world and write about it.
We can’t — and shouldn’t! — spend every hour of our days writing. But the hours we don’t spend writing still show up on the page.
Our examined lives shape our stories
In my writing group, I recently dismantled the seven page outline I had written for my pilot — and rewrote it from scratch, with another character as the protagonist. This is in part because of the badass ladies of my writing group had helped me get to the point where I realized this was the best move, and in part because of what’s been going on in my own life lately. My hero went from the reclusive male protagonist to the live-wire of a woman whose life was a mess but is grappling with her priorities and how she approaches the world. I realized that my male hero was safe to write from: he was a reluctant hero, someone thrown into the story. However, the female character — as vulnerable and messy as she is — is the one who is actually moving the plot forward and putting everything on the line.
After going through a breakup, I realized that I was running from my feelings and the messiness of them — I had also been running from the messy character who was clearly my way into the story all along. So, I got vulnerable, and asked myself why I had relegated her to supporting cast for so long, and realized her story was the most dramatic, even if it was harder to tell.
I say “examined lives” because an unexamined life (aside from not being worth living, according to Socrates) doesn’t provide these kinds of revelations. As artists, we have to question everything. That’s when epiphanies happen: as things click into place after we’ve been moving the pieces around and trying to make sense of it all.
Vulnerability as a lens for truth
I do a lot of freelance writing on the side when I’m not doing things for the showrunner I work for. One of my recent projects is editing a book around a tragedy that reshaped the life of one of my clients. It’s a beautiful story, and what struck me is her brave openness. Her vulnerability is what makes this project so incredibly special.
I’ve also been reading Brene Brown’s work for the first time, and her books preach the power of vulnerability and getting real with the stories we tell ourselves.
That phrase really hit home with me — the stories we tell ourselves. What shields are we building to keep hurt out but prevent us from getting vulnerable? Prevent us from recognizing a truth? As writers, we have to constantly be challenging ourselves to be vulnerable. Otherwise, the walls we construct will keep the truth out, too.
Are you living a life you would want to write about?
If the answer is no, you can still be a great writer — as long as you’re cultivating your rich inner world through reading and writing.
However, no book can replace your own experiences in the world at large: living in a bubble means your stories live there, too.
In the past few months, I’ve broken out of a suffocating routine and pushed myself to have more adventures and meet new people. Since then, I’ve gone to art shows, broken into pools at midnight, experienced music in unconventional spaces like Himalayan salt rooms and huge lofts, spent my days playing volleyball badly on the beach and hiking unfamiliar trails. I’ve stayed out way too late for the sake of good conversation and connection, and each week meet at least two new people for coffee for drinks, and reconnect with friends as often as I can. I go to immersive theater experiences and improvised musical shows at UCB.
I turned 24 this past weekend, and I was able to reflect back on a year well-lived. All of these things make it to the page, even as I’m not writing about them directly.
Designing your creative environment
I love writing in coffeeshops, especially ones with outdoor patios with lots of light and a soft breeze and some good people watching when the work is slow. Other writers I know love writing in old libraries, by the beach, in museums.
Even if you write from home, you can invest in some succulents, scented candles and string lights to create a space independent from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind where you can allow yourself to be creative.
Cultivating this creative environment goes beyond just writing spots, though. What kind of people do you spend your time around? What environment does your day job put you in?
I spent as much time as I could in museums and small galleries when I was writing a feature about a classical oil painter. I’m working on another, much different, art-based pilot that’s more energetic and modern. Now, I spend time in immersive theater experiences and art shows with unconventional, live art experiences.
Your milieu informs how you write your characters and their worlds, so if you’re having a particularly tough time cracking a story, it may be because you haven’t immersed yourself in a similar environment yet.
Healthy habits for the “creativity” diet
In the end, it helps to approach your creativity the way you approach your health. Reading widely and experiencing life fully is akin to drinking lots of water and eating your veggies. You’ve got to be balanced in your approach toward cultivating creativity and practicing your art. Writing alone in a room is just as much part of the process as meeting new people and exploring the world.
So here’s to living the life we want to write about, one day at a time.