Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Writing Life: The Professional Student

I hated school. With a passion. Huge passion. Oddly enough, about the same time that I really started to hate school was when I decided that I wanted to be a writer. The irony of this is that once you are a writer you are also a student for life. Fortunately, school has little to so with being a student. It  has more to do with being a pupil.

A pupil is a mere reflection of the teacher and is expected to return what has been given.  A student, or scholar, has a need and yearning for information and does not want to be limited by authority or institution. The scholar will continue learning without limitation and without conscious intention. He or she attends the school of life.

As a writer I am permanently enrolled and educated by every passing moment or bit of knowledge. Questions may lead to answers, but more often than not both lead to even more questions. I write because I am and I learn because I write.


Writers, be they writers of fiction or nonfiction, are in a constant search for just the right bits of information to assist in the accomplishment of their craft. Without new information, there is no inspiration, everything becomes flat and trite, and little bears the passion of reality.

While I hated school, I loved learning. So, like most writers, I am also an avid reader. I ask questions and pry into the lives of the people around me. How else can I make my characters as real as "real" people? I don't write about the details of their lives, I study their emotions, reactions, the tinier details that give richness to stories. My character may have a cup of tea, but is there importance as to whether he or she is drinking Earl Gray or Celestial Seasonings? Absolutely. Each type of tea can underscore either the essence of the character or the essence of the moment the character is experiencing. Would I know that it makes a difference if I did not know the difference between the teas? This is not from personal experience -- I don't drink tea. If it was limited to my own experience, none of my characters would drink tea -- or coffee for that matter.

So I study. Constantly. Observing the seemingly innocent gesture for subtext. Dissecting subtleties of conversation that reveal the second agenda.

The biggest question of all is "what if?" This is what leads the writer down the rabbit hole. It is a trait that writer's share with scientists. Where they try to prove or disprove it, writers will go there and glory in the twists and turns of possibility. We don't need to prove it. We just need to have the literary sleight of hand to make it believable, make the journey, and then bring it to a climax of troubled but ultimately glorious success or dismal failure.

We must be able to rewrite or fake logic, but to be believable we must understand the subject. If I were going to write about wolves, as several of my writer friends do, I would want to study wolves. I would need to understand their natural behavior, their habitat, hunting traits, interactions, and so on. Now many of my readers are likely to know little or nothing about wolves -- they "would never know." As a writer, I would know I had cheated my audience. As a reader something, somewhere, would strike a false note to me. With the Internet inches away, I am likely to check up on you.

So I study. I am constantly researching. With my day job writing for a pet website I must spend a part of everyday intentionally researching animals. I realized a couple of days ago that I may become difficult to talk with when the subject of animals comes up. A friend of mine, who likes to be the one who knows more that I do, will bring up a topic in animal news to tell me. Since her computer is out of commission and she therefore does not read the website. I will then inform her that I wrote an article on the story and then expand upon it. It kind of kills the conversation. I try to make up for it in areas I don't write about.

My next book, to be written next month in marathon fashion for National Novel Writing Month, will be a novel about reincarnation. I have done years of research on the subject. Still, I know that I will need to stop and look up information as I go. The reason? It isn't just about reincarnation -- it is also about all the historical time periods that will be touched upon over hundreds of years. There will be something I missed somewhere. If I can't fill it in I will have my main character have a memory lapse, but there would be no book at all without research.

To paraphrase: I write, therefore I study.