The Wellspring of Significance


Someone, I think it was Ernest Hemingway, gave the advice that writers should first go out and live outrageously for 20 years before they start writing. The point there was that one has to have some experience to write from before one can write seriously.

Maybe that’s why so many of my writing students want to write fantasy. It’s easier to make something up than rehash real-life stuff, especially if you don’t have much real life to rehash. The problem you get into is that whatever you write–fantasy, sci fi, westerns or romance–if it’s good, should be making commentary on everyday life. That’s really the secret behind good fantasy and good science fiction. Both of them are simply vehicles to make comments about modern-day society. Even westerns get down to the basics of human existence. When what you write misses this part, it seems shallow.

I can talk about the value of significance because I have been around for a while. Trouble is, if you wait until you’re 50 to begin writing, there’s a whole lot of learning that will need to take place to be a good writer. And so, for me as well as most everyone else, my writing education started when I was a teenager. I hadn’t lived much and had a very stereotypical view of the world and the way things worked or should work, but I had to start somewhere.

Even now, there are many things I am totally ignorant of. I have never been arrested, never been on trial, never taken drugs, never been to war. But there are many things I have experienced, and those that I haven’t, I can extrapolate based on the experience of friends and family. Sometimes I wish I had experienced some of those things just for the wisdom it would bring to my writing. And then I remember that wisdom is what kept me off of drugs and out of jail to begin with.

They say that genius is the ability to learn from other people’s mistakes. Maybe that’s the genius when it comes to writing, too. I haven’t done everything in my life that Ernest Hemingway did. But that doesn’t mean I can draw social and personal significance from the experiences I have had.

It’s not really about living. It’s more about observing. Because I believe it is better to have lived a limited or sheltered life and done it with eyes open than to done everything and been everywhere, all the time in a drunken haze or oblivious to the pain and suffering it had put on those around you.

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