Helga’s Post # 123: Whenever I am afflicted with writers’ block (a frequent occurrence), I am reminded of a quote that uses a chilling metaphor to describe the difficult process of composition: The famous quote, one that most writers are familiar with, is this:
‘There’s nothing to writing. Just open a vein and bleed.’
I would think that a good many wannabe writers would rush for the razor without hesitation if taken literally, if that were all it takes to write a good book.
Replacing the metaphor with more realistic tools, what does it mean? At the danger of over-simplifying the quote’s meaning, the more life experience a writer has, the better the chance he/she will write a great book, perhaps even a bestseller (assuming a certain level of writing skills). But not just ‘experience’. Anything is an experience, lining up at the super market, taking the dog out, whatever. Life challenges might be more accurate. And the steeper the challenges, the deeper the valleys that life has carved out for you, the more likely you will be able to ‘open a vein and bleed’. Not always, but there’s a good chance that writers who took it on the chin for much or part of their life will write stories that resonate, stories that readers will remember. Not only remember, but they’ll be chewing their fingernails waiting for your next book to appear in their favorite bookstore.
Take these examples:
One writer leads a straightforward, uncomplicated life. He has travelled widely. He has a decent job but is bored because it doesn’t really challenge him. There are no conflicts in his daily routine or only minor ones, no complicated relationships. He has never had to worry about money and he has never been betrayed, simply because he doesn’t feel close enough to anyone that it would matter. Never felt much passion for anything, never felt the agony or ecstasy over falling in love or being abandoned or watching a loved one die. He thinks he is happy by the sheer absence of calamities in his life, but he has no way of measuring it. Such a person could become a reasonably good travel writer or write a suspense story based on a simple plot and lots of action rather than interesting, three-dimensional characters. But he would be hard pressed to ‘open a vein and bleed’ in his writing.
Another writer lives a life full of contradictions. She has glimpsed heaven and hell in equal measure (or better yet, has lived through more hell than heaven). She has suffered difficult relationships, has experienced delirious happiness when falling in love, and felt the heart-wrenching agony of losses when she was abandoned or lost a loved one to illness. She has experienced financial calamities as well as betrayals. She has a checkered past that would make Lady Chatterly blush and therefore hasn’t shared it with anyone, even her closest friends. But she has no regrets. Everything she does, she does with passion, or she won’t do it at all. She has learned from mistakes, of which there were many. Instead of wallowing in misery and turning bitter she has chalked them up as necessary training ground to become stronger and more independent. She leads a roller coaster life without ever a boring moment.
Who has more to give to their readers? Who is willing to open a vein and bleed profusely, making it part of their story?
All this is self-evident. So, what’s the point?
For one, it’s a great tool for readers to choose quality books. Books that not only entertain while we are reading them, but that stay with us long after we have read ‘The End’. Sometimes years after we’ve read them. Books that have the potential to change us, that’s how deeply they touch us. Stories that we can’t stop thinking about, because their characters are so real we feel we have met them in person. Relationships between them have depths of emotions we may never have known exist, let alone experienced. Or else we have experienced something similar to the story and can relate to the author’s version, remembering and identifying with our own past. With our own bleeding vein.
When choosing your next book to read, take a look at the author’s bio. Does he/she know about their subject matter from their own life experience? We are all familiar with Hemingway’s illustrious life and how he managed to mirror that in his writing. Or, take Sean Slater, a bestselling author and personal friend (in fact he was the original founder of our writers’ group). A police officer in real life, his books are brimming with events that ring true because many of them are. He has lived them and he effectively weaves them into his stories. Another example is one of my pet authors, John LeCarre. He has lived the life of a spy, so he knows how to write about it with authority and authenticity. It helps that he is a man of great intelligence, passion and awesome writing talent. He is well in his eighties now but you wouldn’t know it from the way he writes those wonderful love stories that are always an important part of his books.
I think these are pretty good criteria for selecting your next good book. (Depending of course on what kind of reader you are). Better yet, why not write one? If you are reading this blog it’s likely that you too have chalked up a lot of interesting life experience that can be mined for your next writing project. And if you are not in a hurry to get published so you can pay your next months’ rent, you will add more material to your arsenal for later use. Meanwhile, live those passions that we so love to read about, regardless of your age, because we are never really too old for that.
Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’