I am a writer who learned to write by reading. Seriously. No, stop laughing at me. I mean it this time. I know I joke more often than not. But this is real. All the good and bad things about my life, all the pain I have endured, all the joy I have allowed to tickle me blue (I refuse to turn pink when tickled, I choose blue instead,) and all the wisdom I have gained by being battered by experience come from the same place, the library of the reading I have done and taken to heart.
Life began for me with Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat and the Cat in the Hat Comes Back taught me that you have to learn hard lessons from life. If you let the cat in the door, not only will your talking goldfish end up in a teapot, but he will be unhappy and two little things will mess up your house. Oh, and if you make the added mistake of letting the cat take a bath, you will turn the snow in the entire neighborhood Pepto Bismol pink. Horrors! But I not only learned the wisdom of not repeating mistakes I have made, but I never let any cats with red-and-white top-hats into our house throughout my entire childhood. Not even the ones who could talk.
The most important lesson I learned from multiple books I read as a child, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, and The White Stag, was that I could experience other people’s lives through reading a good book. I was ready for most of the bad people and bullies in my youth because I had been on that ship with Jim Hawkins. I could deal with loneliness and isolation because I had been on that island with Robinson Crusoe. I could evaluate the amount of trouble I was in and make a plan to get out of it because I had been Kidnapped in the book. And I had my own white stags to follow in the forests of my planned future… and fortunately, lost the trail to become a teacher.
Of course, when you read a book, the author gives you insights into the nature of the characters in the story. You see inside the people being told about, learning that they have their own inner story that you can clearly read and learn from and even become.
And the truth of the matter is that real people have their own inner story too. Something is going on inside almost everyone. (Maybe not carrot people. I have only ever met one. But vegetables, unlike humans are simple and not filled with conflict.)
You can read real people’s stories too. If you watch them carefully with empathy as your quiet superpower, you can read the elements of conflict within them. Though never as thoroughly as you could if you were reading them in a book. You can sense their embodiment of familiar archetypes.
Reading living people in the real world is something school teachers do. Students especially are emotionally naked almost every minute of almost every class. (Not literally naked. That would be gross… and possibly illegal.) But the stories pass before your eyes constantly. It would be impossible NOT to read them.
I have seen and studied in depth the writing of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Michael Crichton, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman. By reading I have learned how they write. And they Write Naked. That’s the book Diane Callahan talks about in the very excellent video I linked to the start of this post.
Sometimes I write literally naked. (I know you may think that’s gross, but I have my reasons. And, besides, I am literally a nudist.) But I write emotionally naked too, as the video suggests I should. That involves writing about certain horrible words that make up what I most need to write to be authentic. Let me list a few of those.
- Death – Here is a thing that everyone needs to deal with in order to reach maturity and survive growing older without going completely insane. Somewhere in life you have to make peace with the Grim Reaper. And I have haggled with the old bone-head more than a few times.
- Suicide – I have been in Emergency Rooms five times with severely depressed people. I was not the one contemplating suicide. I was there to help. I have lost a second cousin, three former students, a high school classmate, and a fellow teacher to suicide. I only survived my own bout with it because of a friend on the other end of a telephone line. And, thank God, so far I have saved more depressed people who confided in me than I have lost. I can give you no names here. But I have to write about it in fiction form.
- Sexual Assault – In the long run I have forgiven him, now that he is dead. But he seriously screwed up my life. And I was only ten. It only happened once, but once is enough. And some of my best fiction is linked to this emotional nakedness. I have written more than one book about it.
- Depression – This killer of dreams I still deal with. Diabetes makes it worse. Thankfully it is not the deadly thing it was for Sylvia Plath that Diane talks about in her video while discussing The Bell Jar.
- Loneliness – The ache of being invisible when that’s the last thing you need to be.
- Fear – H.P. Lovecraft and the Bible helped me with this one. Of the two, the Bible is far more scary. But you have to face fear not to be consumed by it.
- Is that a good enough list to write naked from? Let’s add feelings of inadequacy. But still the list is not complete. It will never be enough and there is not enough time left in the universe to write it all.
So, I write with awful words about terrible things. And it is apparently a key to writing well. What some of us won’t do to touch your heart with nest sentence! Thank you for putting up with me.