May 30, 2017

Upstate 8 Literary Festival: Keynote (Part 4)

In Part 3 of my keynote address, I described my writing process yet emphasized how this will vary for everyone. I also recommended reading as essential to writing, and then questioned why we write in the first place. So, in attempting an answer to that...

Anaïs Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” 

That’s a lovely sentiment, isn’t it? Tasting life twice…what a sweet gift that writers get to enjoy.
Whether we’re writing fiction or non-fiction, we draw from life experience in some way to fuel our work with authenticity and heart. Who we are impacts what we write as well as how we write it. You and five of your friends could look at the same tree and each describe it differently.
It’s meaningful, not egotistical, to consider how your sense of self informs your writing. And it’s when you stop being yourself in your writing that it can start sounding inauthentic and cliché.
Because, they always say, Write what you know.” And I agree with that, even though we have to write what we don’t know. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been suspected of murder or haunted by a ghost. I haven’t lived in Victorian London or 1920s Chicago. I’ve never been a twenty-five-year-old man or an eighty-year-old woman. For that matter, I’ve never been a panda or puppy lost in the forest! But I’ve written characters who are, which means I rely on research, observation, and imagination as much as experience. I have to know what I don’t know, and then make the effort to know more about it. 
Writing what we know isn’t about writing our autobiographies. We can draw from events in our lives, but what we know is more about what we feel, how life experience has shaped us emotionally. We can harness that emotion to help us empathize with experiences outside of ourselves, and we can express it in a way that helps others empathize with us, too. The best way to engage our readers is to make them want to take the journey with us, inserting themselves into the experience even if they’ve never lived through anything like it either.
So, in tasting life twice, why not spice it up with more flavor? Why not challenge yourself to know what you don’t know and expand on experience? In many ways, my real life has offered the inspiration I’ve needed to get started, yet the story inevitably evolves from there, trekking into terrain unlike anything I’ve personally known. I simply fit true elements into fictional contexts to communicate something entirely new. It’s like dismantling a clock and using its gears to build a time machine.
Ernest Hemingway similarly said, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”
We also infuse authenticity into our writing through our powers of observation. For most folks, the world becomes too familiar as we age, losing more and more of the wonder it once held for us as children. Back when we questioned everything, were so curious about all of the things.
Writers, though, are blessed with the ability to hold on to that wonder. We notice subtleties, noticing people and how they behave, wondering where they’re going or coming from, how they got that scar above their eyebrow or why they’re smiling to themselves when they think no one’s looking. We might notice a tree and think it looks kinda sad and lonely, or maybe something about it seems hopeful and safe. We notice with a painter’s eye that clouds aren’t just white or grey, or how the mood of a room shifts as the sun rises and sets. We notice what a gust of air feels like in our lungs, through our hair, and what it smells like, and what memories those scents can conjure. How the rustling leaves sound like a waterfall.
We behold the world with wonder, and not only are we richer for it, but we’ve been called to write it down so that others can see the world through our eyes and maybe notice it as if for the first time. 
There’s not always beauty in this awareness. We might instead reveal the darker side of humanity through gritty poems or prose. There might not be a happy ending. But there will always be Truth, so long as we write what we wonder at, and do so through our genuine voices and ability to empathize with what others might have to say, too. That is what makes our writing authentic and universal.
Unlike the negligent Dr. Frankenstein, however, we do need to be mindful of what we bring into being. Our writing inspires us, speaks to us, surprises us, yes, but it also relies on us to nurture and shape it, to find a suitable place in the world for it.
So, when you finish drafting your work, you’re really only just beginning

Sorry to break it to ya. But luckily, editing is a creative process, too.
More on that in Part 5, the conclusion of this keynote series...

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