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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That was great! I just blogged about your post. Thanks!
what a wonderful post! I totally agree with you the best ideas do come from life
Karen Hossink says
Several things you’ve written have stuck with me and I think about you when I see these objects – tree stumps, dishes up high, etc. Now I have a picture stuck in my head of you with a water ski sticking out of your side. I think whenever I get a pain in my side now, I’m going to think of you again…
I truly appreciated this post. Sometimes I feel *obligated* to post something on my blog just because I haven’t for a few days. No, I’ll just remind myself from now on that I’m preparing to write something by simply living!
Thank you for that – it was really great. Amanda’s linkage to you brought me here. 🙂
Living life and enjoying it while living really is one of the most amazing gifts we can give ourselves and our family. Thanks for your words … I am glad you took the risk to waterski so we now have the perfect image of you tumbling across the water seared in our brains 🙂 . Don’t worry, I am laughing with you. My last attempt at water skiing left me completely skiless and very sore for a few days.
Julie Q. says
Fabulous! I’ll remember that analogy for a long time, and I didn’t even have to pay the fee for the writer’s conference. Thanks.
p.s. I’m nominating you for a Thinker award. This post is a classic example of why I visit your blog even when I say I’m too busy for blog-visiting anymore.
I totally agree with you. This weekend was too busy to post. Visiting with relatives, hosting my girl’s 10th b’day party, and teaching a bible study definitely add to the writing topics–even if it takes me a week to get it out!!
I found you through Amanda’s post, and will come back.
Amanda: I enjoyed visiting your post–thanks for the link!
Eelkat: Good to meet you. It’s great to discover like-minded people. I liked your writing tip of the day March 25, 2007–it seemed closely related to this one (and appealed to the lifelong learner in me).
Karen: Oh, my. What have I done to myself, offering up these ridiculous verbal images for the world to attach to that little snapshot of me in the upper right-hand corner? I laughed when I read your comment, because I started imagining that crazy, errant ski, too!
Val: I just love how linkage builds these connections. Because of course now I’m going to pop over and visit you in return!
anordinarymom: Well, I guess it proves my point–I did get a story, and it seems to have made people laugh. And now I’m laughing along, too. I’m kind of relieved to hear your own short ski-story, though. I mean, I’m *sorry* you got hurt, but relieved I’m not the only one who lost her skis!
JulieQ: Your comment is so motivating! Just to know that it was helpful in some way, and also considered worthy of an award? I have no idea what that award is, but it’s certainly the kind I’d like to win–something with the word “thinker” in it. Let me know if I need to put my glasses on and look scholarly.
Jenny: Thanks for visiting and for commenting, too. It’s so fun to meet new people. I feel like I’m mingling at a writing conference. We even have the blog-equivalent of name tags. Enjoy telling this weekend’s stories. I’ll click over to say hi.
I love how you respond back to our comments! Thanks for taking the time.
And if Julie Q. didn’t beat me to the punch, I would have awarded you the same thinking award. I figured you didn’t need two 🙂 !
anordinarymom: I love *receiving* comments, so I certainly love *responding* to them, as well. It’s fun and promotes the interactive quality of blogs.
I only just figured out that I’m supposed to act on that Thinking award–I stopped by mentaltesserae and saw that Julie figured it out. It’s a meme. So now I’ve got to wander about the Blogosphere and offer some nominations….an interesting challenge.
Thanks for commenting. You’re very specific with your encouragement. I really appreciate it.