One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t honestly write what you are unwilling to live. At first, this might seem preposterous. After all, J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t ever really faced a dragon before. Nor did J.K. Rowling know what it was like to grow up an orphan who became a great wizard.
Or did they?
We cannot write what we do not know. It has to come from somewhere—or so the popular thinking goes. If you ask any creative writer, however, where their words come from, the best of them do not know. The most intelligible answer they can offer is some vague response about the ether or a muse or some confusing theory on the origin of myths.
It all sounds like, well… magic.
What they are saying, I think, is that nobody knows where these things originate. They seem to arrive from out of nowhere. But really, it seems obvious to me: it all comes from you. And don’t be surprised if what you find surprises you. That's how deep you go.
Every book we writers face, every word we dare to type, each sentence we dream up—these are all invitations to an inward journey.
It may be a trip to reconnect with your own childlike wonder that was lost long ago. Or maybe it’s an adventure that makes you laugh or cry. Perhaps, you learn something you didn’t know that you knew, some secret wisdom that would benefit the world or just your neighborhood.
No matter how we slice it, no matter what comes out, each act of creation is a trip. And by the end of it, like any good journey, we are changed. Transformed. Something a little different from what we once were. Our friends or partners may notice a new spark in us, something they didn’t see before. Because it wasn’t there before, at least not in any conscious state. It feels brand new because it is.
Writing, for me, is therapy. It’s a meditation, a chance to see what I am refusing to acknowledge in my outer world—an opportunity to witness on plain paper what I think.
Even these words surprise me as they come out. Are they true? They are no more (or less) true than a band of furry-footed creatures attempting to take down the greatest source of evil in the world. They are equivalent in their veracity to a boy with a stick standing up to the man who killed his parents. These words are the best I can do right now, and each of them teaches me something about myself.
I don’t know that we write what we know as much as we write to experience what we could know. Stories are a dance with what could be, with what might have been in another place, at another time. Ideas are approximations of the truth. We write to teach—first ourselves, and then the world.
At least, that’s what I think for now.
Over the years, I've grown more contemplative as I’ve gotten more experienced as a writer. All these words of mine have taught me things about myself, and the greatest lesson is this: “Pay attention.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. I used to say that I wrote because I loved writing. Now, I would say that I write because I love life, and that writing down my thoughts and observations is a way of teaching myself a new lesson on the art of living.
If you don’t know what you think about something, write it down. Test it. See how it looks on the page. Feel what comes up as your own thoughts glare back at you. Do you want to hit the delete button, backspacing a few dashes towards the truth? Or do you want to keep going? This is the gift of any creative act. What we make reveals our deepest thoughts and beliefs, allowing us to hold them up to the light. Only then can we actually see.
This, then, is how we “live” what we write. We can feel the truth of our own expressions. If you attempt to say something in the world that you aren’t willing to face in your own life, you will feel the lack of integrity in your body. It’ll be like a little revolt in your nervous system. You might shake, feel nauseous, or even throw up.
Of course, you can ignore these signs and signals. You can force yourself to write something you know that your soul disagrees with. But who wants to live like that? Write what's true. For now. As far as you can tell. That's all you can do; that would change everything if you let it.