This blog was originally written as a guest post for a fellow writer, Cathleen Townsend. Please see the original at her website, “The Beauty of Words.“
There are a lot of things that are difficult about the writing life.
Writers struggle with self-doubt, must wear many hats to succeed in the industry, and require a thick skin to deal with the unpredictable world of reviews and sales.
But there’s another side to the coin—the things that are wonderful about the writing life. These are the things that keep us coming back again and again, no matter the difficulties.
1. We get to live other lives.
Others may wish they could be someone else from time to time. Writers get to make that wish come true, at least to a certain extent. When I’m in the middle of a story and I’m truly focused and “in” that other world, the real one drifts away and for a time I get to experience what my characters are experiencing.
It happens in a sort of virtual reality that takes place in my imagination, but also in my body, as I’ll often display symptoms, like muscle tension, shortness of breath, or a rapid heartbeat, particularly when my characters are in trouble.
It’s similar to the experience we have when reading, but more visceral somehow, because there is less distance between a writer and her characters than between a reader and the characters. I imagine actors have a similar experience when playing a part. Yet when you’re writing, you’re channeling something even deeper, or more transcendent, perhaps, because you’re the first to experience what’s happening in this world. You’re the first witness, and at the same time, not a witness at all, but a participant.
There’s a reason writers cry when one of their characters dies, or sit stunned after writing a violent scene. For a short time, we get to step outside ourselves, and live someone else’s life. I think it’s a sort of cleansing experience, as when I emerge, I often feel lighter, somehow, as if I’ve shed something and am ready to be refilled again.
2. We get to dive deeply into the big questions.
We all wonder from time to time about the big things. Why we have to lose people we love. Why innocents have to suffer. Why we have to die.
I saw a news story recently, for example, about a sweet little Shetland pony, no more than four feet tall, that was brutally beaten, dragged behind a truck, repeatedly bashed in the head, and mutilated. His injuries were so bad he had to be put down.
This was a sweet animal that often took treats from neighborhood children. The story affected me deeply. My first reaction was anger, hoping the police catch the offenders and put them behind bars.
But my writer’s brain is already trying to piece it together in another way, imagining the characters involved, and what could be the reasons behind it all. I may write about it one day, and find the justice I seek on the page, at least.
Writers get to explore these deeper questions through their stories. I like to sink down under the water, so to speak, and just stay there for awhile, watching, observing, asking questions. Digging into the things that bother me about life in a story is one of the most satisfying ways I have of finding answers for myself.
And when I say “answers,” I don’t mean I come to understand why we have to lose people, for example, or how someone could conceivably put an animal through such torture, but I can wrestle with the issue through a character’s experience to the point that I reach some sort of peace with it, at least temporarily.
If the issue raises its head again, I can tackle it anew, in a different story. It’s a way I have of dealing with life, and of finding meaning, that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t a writer.
3. We get to touch something beyond ourselves.
When I write, inevitably, something magical happens.
The heroine in my fantasy novel, for example—her name is Adrienna—is an artist at heart, and longs to sculpt figures out of the magical white stone. In an early version of the story, I mentioned a distant sculptor that she discovers she’s related to, someone who is considered the “father” of sculpting in her world.
His name? I just grabbed it out of the air, like I do most of my character names. They sort of come to me, and I try them out. If they work, they stick, which they most often do. If not, I try something else. Anyway, this character’s name, the “father” of sculpture, was “Phydias.”
You art aficionados may already know where this is going, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until months later I discovered, while doing research for something else, that Phidias (spelled with an “i” instead of a “y”) was a real person. Not only that, he was a very famous Greek sculptor, painter, and architect in the fifth century B.C., regarded as one of the greatest of all sculptors in Classical Greece.
Some of his accomplishments included the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as the statues of the goddess Athena on the Athenian Acropolis.
This is just one example. It happened again on a recent trip to research my work in progress (entitled “The Beached Ones,”). I was lingering at the setting for the final scene in California, trying to imagine all the details in my head, when I just happened to meet someone in passing that turned out to have the answers I was looking for, and further, to be happy to share them with me.
I didn’t plan the meeting. I didn’t expect to get the information I did. It was like a gift from the ether.
I love this part of writing. It’s happened so often now that it doesn’t necessarily surprise me, but it always delights.
There are other things that are great about writing, like the flexible hours, the ability to work in coffee shops and cafés, and the joy that comes from creating something out of nothing. I didn’t always plan to be a writer, but I’m very glad that I found my way to it…or perhaps more accurately, that it found it’s way to me.
But that’s another story.
Do you experience some of these cool experiences when creating? Please share your story.