Ready to be a writer?

At Bookview Cafe, a post by Alma Alexander: Five Things to Do With Your Life Before You’re Ready to be a Writer.

Here’s something true: before you can write about life, at least adequately, you have to have lived it. In some way, shape or form. And I don’t mean vicariously on Facebook, or even online at all. … Here are five things to do with your life before you’re ready to be a writer. There are more than five things, of course. But these are pretty broad. Feel free to add in your own subcategories, or nuances.


Know what an adrenaline surge REALLY feels like. You cannot possibly write about one without that visceral knowledge. And “dangerous” is huge – you can fit in a lot of things under that umbrella – do something that your mother might have warned you about, or something that society considers “unsafe”, or something simply exhilarating.

The other four things are … let me see …

2) Travel
3) Feel real grief
4) Feel real anger
5) Fail

Interesting, interesting. Let’s think about this. Is it possible to get through childhood without doing something that feels dangerous? Even in today’s perhaps over-structured and over-supervised childhood? I vote No. It’s hard to imagine any kid who can’t look back on rules broken and dangers survived. Anybody? Speak up!

I mean, I had a pretty safe childhood, but still, I messed around with bonfires, climbed around on the roof, climbed big trees, walked down spooky alleyways, explored attics, climbed on and jumped around on the rocks at Elephant Rocks, whatever.

I spent a day and night alone on a little island once, on a month-long canoeing trip in college. Not that this was scary or dangerous. Boring, mostly.

Is it possible to grow up without the odd adrenalin rush? Or live your adult life without the occasional brush with death? Think of the last time some moron just about sideswiped you in heavy traffic and you came within an inch of dying in a huge pile-up on the interstate. I mean, you should have been there that time a guy passed me at 90 mph on the shoulder of a major highway, with the shoulder about to disappear as we went over a bridge. Whoa, seriously, that was quite something.

I flipped my car over once when a guy ran me off the road. He didn’t have insurance and he was driving on a suspended license. Not that that matters; I’m just saying, if you’re going to have a serious accident, it’s nice if the other guy is clearly at fault and you are clearly pure as the driven snow. I was fine, btw. Got a tiny little cut on my hand somehow. Let me add that I’m still grateful to all the drivers who stopped to make sure I was okay, and the one guy who loaned me his phone, and the cop who got there so fast.

Early training in wearing seatbelts: take note, if you’re a parent, that’s a good habit to instill in your children.

But isn’t that kind of thing just inevitable? Along with real anger, and failure, and grief. I personally have not experienced “real grief” in the sense of having a child of mine die, say. Nor (yet) any first-degree relative. I don’t think this prevents me from imagining the grief and fury of, say, Lisette in Wein’s Rose Under Fire. Far from it. Actually I think it’s true that reading literature (I’m including genre fiction) instills empathy, most likely even in the absence of personal experience.

Travel, eh. I can’t help but notice that Emily Dickinson wrote all her poetry based on a virtually cloistered life. And how about Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Famous examples come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of non-famous writers who didn’t travel.

Well, it’s a thought-provoking post.

The lives of the very rich and the very happy seldom make for good story fodder – because these people can be seen as insulated from failure. Everything is handed to them…

I don’t know. I don’t think anyone has an easy life. Not anyone. Some easier than others in material ways. Some easier than others in emotional ways. But no one has such an easy time that you couldn’t tell a compelling story about them. The burdens people must carry are different, and more or less obvious to outside observers, that’s all; and the writer’s job is therefore different for different kinds of protagonists.

I’m tempted to take a stab at writing a happy-by-nature YA protagonist just to illustrate the point. Maybe I will. And I wouldn’t make her less complicated or less deep than an angst-ridden teenage YA protagonist, either.

No, I expect the general thesis of this post falls somewhere between False and Overstated. How about you? Click through and read the post if you have time, and then agree or disagree.

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7 thoughts on “Ready to be a writer?”

  1. “I’m tempted to take a stab at writing a happy-by-nature YA protagonist just to illustrate the point. ”

    umm…. Nativadad? or Justin?

    Just throwing it out there. I’ve been rereading all the Black Dogs books, as they were haunting me in that way books do. Those characters come across as about as close to happy by nature as you can get.

  2. Yes to both. Both have recently lost close family members when we meet them, though, so both are having to deal with that. How about a happy-by-nature protagonist who is actually happy when the story opens, deals with stuff during the course of the story, and is happy as the book ends? Of course you have to have tension, but perhaps not the tension of grief or anger.

    I wonder if some romances don’t pull this off. Perhaps some of Laura Florand’s. I could see some of her protagonists as intrinsically happy but frustrated when the story opens.

  3. I’d read the happy book! I love happy books (as I just mentioned at great length on you previous post) and they often become comfort reads for me.

    I agree that all these experiences are not prerequisites for becoming a writer. Some experience of your own may be necessary if you want to write believably about that kind of feeling/experience, but not everyone experiences deep things like grief or anger (or love, for that matter, which she doesn’t mention but which is so important, both in life and in a well-rounded protagonist) the same. So even if you’ve experienced it yourself instead of vicariously through reading or hearing about it, that doesn’t mean that your experience of it will speak to me and my experience.
    And definitely, not all good books need to address such deep and heavy emotions!

  4. Definitely agree on the “everyone has his own problems” bit. And I’m rather sick of the eternally-tormented types of characters. I like reading about people having fun, too!

    The happy-go-lucky that comes to mind is Twoflower from the early Pratchett books (The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic). He’s cheerful in a lot of comedic ways (like not recognizing X or Y is about to kill him), but Pratchett puts a real “ouch” moment in when Twoflower finally explains WHY he’s on vacation. And suddenly the character completely changes, going from a cartoon to someone with more depth than you thought possible.

  5. I do not doubt this article is written with good intent. Nevertheless, I resent in general all advice on things you must do before you become a writer.

    I think they’re missing the point. Before you become a writer you should do two things:
    1 – Acquire something to write on, such as a piece of paper.
    2 – Acquire something to write with, such as a pen.

    Anything else might help you become a *better* writer, but don’t hold off on writing until you’ve checked them all off!

    Oh my. How did I get up on this soapbox? It is rather tall.

  6. Preach it, Evelyn!

    Megan, I’m more than *rather* sick of eternally-tormented protagonists. I never quite went back and read the earlier Pratchett books, but I can certainly see him delivering an “Ouch” moment for an otherwise cheerful character.

    Hanneke: even if you’ve experienced it yourself instead of vicariously through reading or hearing about it, that doesn’t mean that your experience of it will speak to me and my experience. VERY good point. For me, grief seems very closely tied to rage, to the point where I’m not sure there’s much point in trying to differentiate. But I know that’s not everyone’s experience. I think it’s important to keep in mind that one person’s experience isn’t necessarily going to resonate with another.

    Mary, Jane Austen is another I should have thought of.

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