Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of active supporters in my desire to be a writer someday. It was the kind of thing that had weird responses from my various English teachers over the years. Almost none of them encouraged me in any sense to pursue writing fiction. Many actively suggested this was a waste of time.
However, amongst a lot of disinterest in this goal, I did receive one really important piece of advice. The only piece of advice that’s ever really helped me on my way.
The classic advice you are given as a writer is to read, and read widely. This is absolutely true; if you don’t much like reading, why write a book?
But books can only get you so far.
There is something else you need to be doing, while you read. The most valuable piece of writing advice that I’ve ever received is this:
Live as much as possible.
While reading will give you the tools to craft good sentences, inject your own personality into paragraphs and understand story structure, it’s hard to really write anything worth reading without living first. It’s hard to really know what you want to say. Without a few experiences under your belt, it’s hard to really get to grips with meaty issues. To quote Anais Nin:
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion with one’s courage.”
Drawing on your courageousness is what is required for you to go and live large — and the more risks you take in the journey of cultivation of experience, the more rewarding the outcomes can be. You don’t have to write about huge, esoteric issues in order to be a writer, of course, but looking out into the world with an open mind certainly helps to gather and understand life and the people in it, much better. Even the ‘smallest’ of stories draws on a vast number of ideas to make it rich.
An example of this that I really love is ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’ by Brian Moore. In this story, Judith is seen largely at home in her room, at church or travelling between these places. She only ventures out briefly to buy alcohol, but she can’t do much — she’s limited by a very tight budget. While all her issues feel ‘small’ they really aren’t in Judith’s world; they are her whole world. Which is why when a man seems to take interest in her, she responds immediately — an opportunity to expand her world is too great to pass up.
Moore deftly realises a female character of a very particular age, in very particular circumstances. He is not a woman, and was a good degree younger than Judith’s character when he wrote the novel. He still executes the character to absolute perfection.
At the time of writing this novel, Moore had already served in the Second World War and emigrated to Canada. He’d clearly seen and done a lot, but chose to write a story on a flawed woman in a small room. The nature of the story didn’t have to be world-scaled, but still drew upon a sensitivity and curiosity of the perspectives of others.
Short of serving in a war or emigrating abroad, how do you cultivate lived experiences that lead to writing inspiration? Or to ‘rich’ writing? Here are a few ideas:
Travel on your own
Near or far, travelling on your own gives you the opportunity to be in pure observation mode. This can just mean travelling to another city nearby, or acting like a tourist in your own city. But heading out the house alone, listening to the world around you, and taking note of how people behave, is a wonderful way to learn more about your fellow human. Also, you just never know what will happen on your journey — and when things “go wrong”, that’s where some of the richest experiences come from.
Look for people outside your usual circle
While observing alone is a powerful tool, meeting diverse people is also rather important and a rich source of inspiration. If you’re only ever talking to people with very similar life experience to yours, this is limiting. The world is a big place, and hearing from someone with an opinion very different to your own will be a valuable encounter, opening you up to new ideas. The trouble is generally finding them — social media, in particular, helps to perpetrate our own echo chamber. Breaking out into other circles becomes tricky.
It might mean volunteering at a charity, joining a Meetup you’ve never previously considered, or signing up for a class. Pushing yourself outside the usual is the key; it’s the best way to meet new and different people. I tend to avoid deliberate networking events because they tend to feel a bit stilted and professional, when what I’m really after is hearing from real people without an agenda. However, even this can work — after all, what adds richness to your creative inspiration is the process of engaging with those whose point of view is vastly different to your own. They offer us all a very new perspective.
Write on Medium
No joke. Following on form meeting new people in the flesh, writing on this platform is fantastic for hearing from very different kinds of individuals — I have received incredible comments, with all sorts of stories, from people based all over the world. All as a result of writing on this platform. It’s been incredibly enlightening to hear comments and ideas from people whose lives are very different to mine. And unlike social media, Medium can penetrate the echo chamber — my stories are visible all over the place, by all sorts of people. Not all the comments are positive or happy. And that’s totally fine and good — it helps me get a sense of other views out there.
Go out and engage with other disciplines
Other art forms and those people who are working in vastly different disciplines have a lot to teach us writers, too. Art makers of all kinds make their work speak to their experiences, and their way of engaging with ideas might be very different from yours — even if the subject matter is similar. So look out for opportunities to talk to painters, musicians, dancers, architects… Chances are they can shed a new light on what you think and how you engage with your own creativity.
Talk to your elders
Intergenerational conversations are so vital. My grandmother, for instance, emigrated halfway around the world in the late 60s. To a country where she didn’t speak the language, and didn’t really know anyone. She had three small children at the time, as well. The stories that accompany this experience are mind boggling — I feel very blessed to have had her in my life, to have been able to speak and engage with her and her point of view on things (which is, naturally, very different to mine). So, seek out your elders. They have a lot to tell us about the world.
Say ‘yes’ to the new
If you don’t try new things, it’s going to be hard to live as largely as you might like. Say yes to new experiences, say yes to trying out things you have never thought to try.
An Introvert’s Rules for Better Social Interactions
Setting helpful boundaries to prevent burnout, without resorting to hermitage
I have a few personal rules about how I socialise to help make decisions about what I say yes to. However, when presented with opportunities to join in, I have often tried to say yes. This is not always the case, and you have to remain aware of your own boundaries of course, but openness does help expand your vision in the world.
Cultivate the small stuff, too
This means not shying away from your local cafe or park. Anywhere where you can see or hear life happening, is worth investigating.
Take everything as an opportunity to be inspired. From the news, from those around you, including friends and families — sometimes your lived experience isn’t as dramatic as you might hope, and it’s up to the careful cultivation of many stories to get you over the line. But cultivating ideas large and small comes from a desire to engage, a strong curiosity and an open heart.
How do you find inspiration form the world? Do you create ‘bucket lists’ of things you want to try in your lifetime? How does your life impact your writing? I would love to know.
We’re all on an individual journey towards creative fulfilment. I wish you well on yours.