Do you know what a lot of historically famous writers have in common? Aside from depression, alcoholism, psychosis, failed relationships, monomania, poverty, destitution, and narcissism, I mean.
They all lived fascinating lives. Hemingway survived back-to-back plane crashes while he was bumming around Africa playing chicken with lions and rhinos. Christopher Marlowe was an alleged spy for the British Crown and was stabbed to death in a pub, probably for discovering some super secret Illuminati plot. Mark Twain was a gold prospector and steamboat pilot who spent a ton of time drinking with Nikola Tesla, who was his BFF. He also accurately prophesied his own death.
These men definitely had innate talents for writing, but their art was set ablaze by the events of their lives. Their work was a reflection of what they had experienced, a living mirror of who they were, where they’d been, and what they’d seen. Without the wanderlust and random chance of life, they may not have written anything of note.
Whether catalysts for personal artistic transformation or just examples of the good and evil woven into the quilt of our reality, the life of a writer is just as important as their mastery of language or the vividness of their imagination.
If you want to write things that readers will connect to, you have to get out there and live. How can you understand universal human emotions and appeals if you haven’t felt them yourself?
But you’re busy, and don’t have time to go camp in Africa/spy for Britain/chill with a revolutionary scientist. I’m right there with you. Our commitment-centric lives don’t leave much time for such wild and irresponsible adventures.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the way you are already living. You still have to get off your duff and see some things from time to time, but there are several things you can do to capitalize on whatever situation you just happen to stumble into during your nine to five. There are lots of ways to improve your writing on a daily basis, but they all involve a proactive attitude towards improvement.
1. See the details
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was hiding all of the best stuff in the details. I think that’s how the saying goes.
It is your responsibility as a writer to watch closely and carefully. Instead of mindlessly walking through the park, scan your surroundings and process what is happening. Did an English Mastiff break from its leash to chase a squirrel? Did the squirrel run through a bunch of picnic-goers to get up the nearest tree? Did a robot, programmed to protect humans, see the squirrel as a threat and try to climb the tree? Did the dog then collide with the robot causing a hilarious pile-up of fur and tungsten alloy?
Probably not, but these are the kinds of details you need to notice when you’re out in the world. These are the London broil and garlic mashed potatoes of your narrative-entree. These are the things that make up the microcosmic stories of our daily lives.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes you’re tired or distracted or so lost in your cloudy head that a wizard could conjure some fire imps right next to you and you’d barely notice. You still need to make a conscious effort. You can attune your brain to watch for these details (like Shawn Spencer from Psych) and over time get pretty good at spotting what most people miss.
The more you pay attention, the more you’ll realize that a lot of what we experience can almost be directly translated into storytelling. What is a day in a life other than a self contained event with a beginning, middle, end, arc, and lesson? When you know what makes up the basis of a good story and can spot real life examples without much effort, it becomes a lot easier to recreate them on the page.
2. Note how many notes you take
Our brains are more like long-term storage databases than USB flash drives. If you expose yourself to a content for a while, chances are you’ll remember. If you get a tiny fleeting glance of it, chances are you’ll forget.
Even if you thought that one idea was totally perfect. Especially if you thought that one idea was totally perfect.
Easy solution: carry a notebook. Use a note taking App. Takes notes on napkins or receipts or in the margins of whatever book you’re carrying.
You don’t have to tattoo yourself with every single idea that spontaneously forms in your brain like Guy Pearce in Memento, but taking down some notes about the key points or details of an idea can help jolt your memory into action when you have some time to actually sit down and write.
The more you take notes, the more you’ll remember, the more you’ll write, the more you’ll be happy.
3. Correspond like a writer
I bet you a beer that you write thousands of words a day without thinking about it.
These are the “forgotten words.” They sneak by in the form of text messages, emails, chat sessions, and meeting notes.
Our daily writing is like the running part of soccer; you don’t necessarily play soccer to run, but you might as well get the workout while you’re playing.
Why not use all of those forgotten words (that you’re obligated to write, anyway) as a chance to practice your craft?
Start writing emails with some artistic flourish. Intentionally vary your sentence patterns. Try new vocabulary. Force yourself to use correct grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Don’t be lazy, don’t take shortcuts.
Use every chance you have to improve your writing, even if it’s in an email to your mother reminding her for the 50th time that you’re lactose intolerant and that she shouldn’t make linguine Alfredo for dinner when you come to visit.
Eventually, writing clearly, accurately, and fancifully will become habitual. When it becomes habitual, you can focus on other aspects of your craft, like what to name the Android in your short story about a machine and a dog who became best friends after running into each other at the park.
4. Get up, stand up
Life doesn’t happen in your cubicle or on your couch or at your local dive-bar. A form of life happens in these places, but it’s the boring, generic, perfunctory kind that is tainted by the usual and the predictable.
Life does happen when you take a pin of variation to your bubble of comfort. When you break routine and rout boredom. It happens when you appreciate the pattern that makes up your life (mine is tartan) but recognize that in those well worn grooves you’ll never grow.
Even if you’re not physically, financially, or temperamentally capable of grand excursions to exotic destinations, you can still deviate from your patterns and engorge your brain with new information.
Drive a new route to work; see new buildings and neighborhoods and street-corner life. Have conversations with people you’ve barely met; ask them about their jobs and dreams and families.
And when you feel like you know these routes and these people, change it up again. And again. And again. Every new pattern builds upon the last, layering experiences and life lessons into a thicker and thicker cross-section of life. Eventually, you’ll have experienced so much, that you can’t help but have it permeate your writing.