by Susi Liarte
Imagine you are walking through an old town. The houses and paving are all made from local materials because these were the easiest to gather at the time. This is what it means to write what you know – to draw from the experiences and inspiration you have to hand. However, it does not limit what you can create because you are always gaining new ideas. When you are walking through a different story, a different author’s landscape, even when you are looking at familiar things they are built in a unique way. Your work from the past is also an old town; what you create now can capture its style or rise like a piece of modern architecture. Regardless, what you design with your imagination needs a strong foundation – the writing craft itself.
Because I’m interested in both writing and art, I often think about the parallels between the two creative processes. There have been times where I’ve not been prolific in either, so at the moment I’m trying to get back into regular practice, even if it is a short fifteen minute session. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what you want to produce, and the voice that says “otherwise, what’s the point?”. When you’ve worked hard on something, it can be hard to seemingly let go of words. But the practice makes your skill grow.
I recently visited an exhibition of Albert Moore art. Some very similar pieces were clustered together, each version showing differences in composition and colour. An artist who practises the same pose many times before figuring out the final piece does not necessarily lose originality; more likely they are better able to bring out the art they want for having practised. Similarly, the scarcity of your best words is a myth. Writing something good now doesn’t mean you have used up something valuable. I’m an Aquarius, so the image of water flowing from the jug reminds me of this. I think language and creativity are the same – a steady stream instead of being a finite resource that must be kept close so that it is not lost.
Sometimes writing feels easy, sometimes it’s daunting. Starting is hard, hence the advice on writer’s block, and every writing session can feel like a new beginning. But after the first hurdle, other doubts crop up. Ideas that seemed good at the time bring about thoughts such as “did I pick the right thing?”, “will I be able to do it justice?”, “can I produce enough content”? It’s the fizzling out of whatever motivation brought you to that point. This is why I like Gail Sher’s approach in One Continuous Mistake. It’s not just practice in the sense of going over basic skills, a warm up before the ‘real’ work – it’s a practice like meditation is, a dedicated period of time where what matters is the act itself.
You already have everything you need.
Here are some ideas for gathering your base materials:
1. Describe a place from your childhood or teenage years that you feel connected to – a place in your home, town or even a family holiday that left an impression. Even if you can’t remember it fully and you can only picture a photograph that was taken at that time, you can still write and imagine the rest. It’s not a historical memoir that will be fact checked! What matters is the version of it that you have created, because that’s what has meaning for you.
2. List your favourite stories, characters and tropes. There are some you will return to again and again. Not only are they built into your internal narrative, but they are things that your mind can quickly access and understand, which is great for times when you don’t want to spend time trying to choose what to write. ‘What you know’ includes all the fictional journeys you’ve taken, too. The influences that make up your comfort zone can combine in interesting ways. Having them down on paper can help you make those connections.
3. Get down the things you want to write about but feel you’re not ready for, or don’t know enough about. You are still holding them inside you as a potential topic to explore, and are just a valid a source of input as the things you are more familiar with. Consider why they appeal to you, and what you know about them now. See which ones you would like to learn more about, and what perspective they can add to your ideas.
When I think of my hometown, I think of the sea. It still holds the same power over me even though I don’t live there now. However, that doesn’t mean that I set all my stories there (far from it). It does mean that if and when a character looks over the sea, I’ll understand what that’s like, and can bring more of myself to that moment. It’s part of the patchwork of my own inner universe, and it manifests in the concept of ‘taste’. Your preferences, the idea of knowing what you like when you see it, is something you can tap into at any time to create something that meets any one of its facets. It’s not meant to limit you, as this can change over time. Just know that when you sit down to write, you already have a rich world with elements that you can weave into something new.
Walk among your own paths first and get to know them; writing them will be a chance to discover them for yourself. When someone else reads your work they wander where you lead them, and will brush past the things that come through. Some people might recognise your influences because they share some of the same ones, others won’t know it consciously but will feel that your work is somehow familiar and meant for them. Some will encounter new, exciting things. The blank page can be your canvas, your playground, your beach. Build and rebuild, because your craft will improve each time.