Fifteen years ago, I sat in a breakout session at a writers’ conference listening to an author talk about the writing process.
The thing I remember most was this: “The best advice I can give you to help you grow as a writer is to experience life.”
We came to hear about queries and proposals. We wanted to learn how she organized submissions and kept track of contact information.
“I know you think your writing career is all about composing articles and books,” she said, “but you have to be able to say something.”
True. I was young enough to know I was somewhat limited in the Life Experience department.
“Both fiction and nonfiction writers need material,” she continued, “so get out there and live life—take risks!”
To illustrate, she told a story from her own life about waterskiing for the first time that summer, and how she decided to take the risk primarily because she knew it would provide material for her work. She was able to write about sensations and fear and exhilaration in concrete terms because she popped on skis for the first time and rode around the lake—something she would have declined, had she been, say, a public accountant or clarinet teacher.
I think it was her example—of waterskiing—that drove her session into my long-term memory bank. You see, earlier that summer I, too, had gone waterskiing for the first time at a friend’s lake house. In fact, it ended with one of the most spectacular wipeouts my friends had ever witnessed. They say I tumbled over the water like a performer from a circus act gone bad—one ski shot off like a javelin and the other flipped around so that its tip somehow gouged my hip all the way down to the bone. I was stiff and sore and bruised like someone walking away from a traffic accident.
“Do you want to try again?” my friends asked.
“No,” I responded dully. I don’t remember how I got back to the dock—maybe I was close to the edge at the time of my tumble, or maybe I was brought there in the boat. But I remember walking half-zombie-like toward the lake house, visiting the facilities and discovering that small, deep gouge. I don’t know why it wasn’t gushing blood, but I was able to rummage through my friend’s medicine chest and find a bandage to slap onto it.
I stood in that bathroom and resolved never to waterski again. Never. Ever.
So when that conference speaker talked about risk and illustrated it with a story about waterskiing, I think memories of that horrifying tumble solidified the advice.
I took a risk and got a story.
How to Get Material for Your Writing
Live life. Take risks. That’s how you’ll get material for your writing. It’s how you’ll find things to say and stories to tell.
Today, we drove to my parents’ house for the day. The sun was shining—a rare treat—and the temperature soared. For the first time in months, I felt warm, deliciously warm, and I could smell spring in the air.
As we sat on chairs in the back yard, Dad pointed out the buds on the trees ready to leaf. We watched the kids run around with their cousins playing tag and laughing. The Boy spun in circles. Everybody seemed happy.
A tiny part of Writer Ann whispered to Self, “Too bad you didn’t have time to post something on your website or social media this morning. You gave your readers nothing.”
When You Can’t Write, Live Life
Then I remembered that writer’s advice from long ago. Instead of sitting in my swivel chair staring at my computer screen, I spent the day with my family, experiencing life. It wasn’t exactly a risk-filled afternoon, but living life simply provides more material.
Remember that, on the days you’re busy living and can’t find time to write or blog.
Remember that, too, when you have an opportunity to take a risk: It’s all fodder for future projects. You’re storing up sensory information to tap into that will provide the kind of specific details that bring a piece to life.
Live life. Take a risk.
Sometimes, Let Go of the Rope
You may find your groove right away. You gain speed and balance—you’re gliding, nearly flying.
Sometimes you may take that risk, though, and feel yourself losing balance. You take the risk and things fall apart. Next thing you know, you’re losing balance, careening.
It’s okay to let go of the rope. In fact, sometimes in life and writing, as in skiing, it’s the right move to let go of the rope. Live life, take the risk, and let go when you need to catch your breath.
There’s always tomorrow. There’s always another day, another risk, and another story for your writing.
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