I’m not a glutton for raw experience. I don’t typically hanker for a round of skydiving or a bout of bungee jumping. I’ve never gone clubbing. Riding the tallest roller coaster in the world sounds terrible. “High Adrenaline” and “Fun” are not synonymous to me.
Don’t get me wrong; I do have my amusements. I have been known to travel internationally. I like a good gin and tonic. I once dyed my hair a dark, almost black, brown. I have three piercings on my right ear. You could say I’m a bit of a daredevil, in that I have no qualms about driving through Pittsburgh in the winter during rush hour.
But left to my own instincts, on a given free day or free evening after work, I will stay at home, and sit, and decide to spend several hours quietly writing, which usually means staring at a blank notebook or computer screen, or puttering around the house until I’ve Marie Kondoed every room. There’s nothing wrong with contemplative hours like this; in fact, they have proven to be productive. But I notice myself drawing inward, fearful, sensitive, out of touch with the world.
I think that the remedy to this is easy enough; I scroll through Instagram and think I will gain connection that way. But it fails me, because the internet is more of a pulling my brain in a million different directions than really drawing it into any single connection.
I am a fun-loving person, and I would love to be the adrenaline-junkie type. I really would. Mostly. But I also have anxiety, which puts a damper on that. And also, I’m just not that adrenaline-junkie type. I think up a dozen ideas for a fun day out, and then I nix each one for myself, bringing up this complication or that expense, and what would I even wear? and who might be there? and where would I park?
And so I continue to draw inward, tunneling into my own mind, hoping there is a story there that will connect with people, disappointed when nothing comes out of my pen or fingertips, feeling even more hurried and ragged when it seems my peers are producing great works of art.
The remedy to this is simple, and I hear the same advice anytime a seasoned writer talks about writer’s block or lack of inspiration.
I have to go outside.
I have to go on a walk, or to the park, or to the museum, or the grocery store, or the woods. Right now, with social distancing, it’s usually those outdoor locations that are accessible to me. So I go. On hikes, on benches by park ponds, on patches of grass. I write what I see. I write anything that comes to mind, even if it has nothing to do with what I see.
Whether I like it or not, we make connections with the world through our experience, and that connection fuels our writing. Even if, like me, you don’t enjoy flying through life by the seat of your pants, trying every new and terrifying experience that presents itself, it takes living in the world to adequately write about it. And “living” doesn’t just mean sitting at your desk, trying to conjure a believable world out of thin air.
This past week I went to a large public park in the city, sat by a lake in the center of it, and tried an exercise. I sat, and watched, and wrote whatever came to mind. Here are some things that I found:
There’s a bridge above us, connecting one hill with another. It thumps quietly as each car crosses it.
Driving a car is the only power some people get.
This lake is not a real lake. It’s more like a political platform: very wide, mostly shallow, very murky.
A father and young daughter sit together in the grass, listening to heavy metal music.
Vines grow on a power line between two streetlights.
Even the lake is not self-contained. It has a stream feeding it and a drain relieving it. An input and an output. Without either one of these, the water would either be stagnant, or it would overflow and be destructive. With them, the lake is healthy, beautiful, vibrant. It won’t give you Salmonella anytime soon.
Like a lake, whether it’s a real one or not, we need an input and an output too. Writing, creating, is output. But without creative input, the water is stagnant. We need input, inspiration, new experiences and observations to revive those same five thoughts we have on a daily basis, and to give us something new to work with.
And it doesn’t have to be going somewhere either, although it’s encouraged (if safe). Reading, watching a film, taking in art, having a conversation, are all types of creative input. What makes them different from trash input, like, say, the dumpster fire that is social media, is the approach. If I watch a TV show by sitting on the couch without a bra on, staring at the screen and not getting up for several hours to give myself a drink of water and a vegetable, I am partaking in trash input. It’s a numbing behavior; sometimes therapeutic, but only in small doses. Like morphine.
However, watching TV and using it as a creative exercise, looking critically at the themes, interpersonal relationships, conversation, and the visual choices made by the creators, functions as some quality creative input that will serve my writing in the long run. Bra still optional.
I’m not crapping on anyone’s entertainment choices. Like I said at the beginning: I’m a fun person. I can be irresponsible, if I want. But I do notice a sharp difference in my creative process when I protect my creative input. I am more refreshed, more hopeful, and more led by my joy than by ragged desperation. I have more to work with, creatively, and I don’t feel rushed to make it something good.
And of course, experiences aren’t only short-term bursts of fun stuff to do in an afternoon. Experiences are long-term, too. My experiences growing up in a small-town church, or working at a bank, or practicing yoga are all things that inform my creativity, percolating in my mind until one day I’m writing and I find that experience useful.
Those little observations and experiences nose their way into my psyche. They come out in the way my characters think. They show up in how this one thing reminds me of this other thing, and everything is just one big cosmic metaphor, and I have a great essay on the subject now. They add depth to my work, fine grits of realism that allow the reader to suspend disbelief just a little more, to believe the wonderful lie that is fiction that is truth.