A Writer’s Experience

I’ve been thinking about my experience as a person and how that funnels into what I write. I mean, they’re definitely related. And by related, I mean wrapped up so tightly that it would take a psychologist and a crowbar to sort it all out. But it’s also not a straightforward equation, like PAST EXPERIENCE + SECRET DESIRE = BESTSELLING ROMANCE or something like that. Or is it? Fuck, I don’t know.

And then, rather separate from our past life experiences, there’s the experience of writing the book, which I think changes us. Minimally we’ve learned about the characters. Hopefully something about craft. And more than that, we have the little truth quartzes that surfaced during the dig.

This is why I write. It’s not because I “can’t not write” as I sometimes see bandied about. Or because of some hope for glory. I mean, I wouldn’t turn down glory, but my chances are probably better in another field. Writing is the second best way I’ve found to learn things, reading being number one. As a writer, I get to do a lot of both.

Awhile back I read some writing advice from a bestselling author that said to use what we see in our books. The example was something really simple, like she ate an orange and so her character did. Because of this, she was able to describe them better. It makes me wonder how much this applies to larger plot points. How would this book I’ve written be different if I wrote it in a year or two years or ten years?

1339345834820_8803315Because books sit on shelves with thick fancy binding, they have a sense of permanence. Digital books are a little different, but the same principles apply. Once you put the book out there, it’s done. Which, to me, is a certain acknowledgement against perfection. It’s not that my first book won’t be perfect or that my second one won’t be, it’s that they will never be. Cannot be. Because they’re not a culmination but a snapshot of where I am at the time. It can’t represent what I’ll experience or think up tomorrow any more than I can predict next week’s lottery numbers.

In addition, there’s usually a long lead time between when you finish a manuscript and when it’s available for sale. So by the time other people are reading my thoughts, they may have already changed or grown or retracted or become invalidated or become even more true or anything at all. That’s not to say that authors should or do dislike their past books. It’s about loving something that is by its nature imperfect and incomplete. It must be imperfect and incomplete, because if that’s still all I know, then I would not have grown since then.

Yesterday, I read the reddit IAMA from Ethan Hawke and turns out he is a novelist! I did not know this. Anyway, he’s talking about famous author Kurt Vonnegut and says, “I remember when we met I told him how much I loved SLAPSTICK and he said it wasn’t a very good book.” Well, it is and maybe it isn’t, but I think the author is perhaps in the worst position to judge his own work.

The characters I’m writing at the moment are possibly my favorite characters ever. I’ve had them in my head but avoided writing their book because I worried I wouldn’t be able to do them justice and then finally just… started writing. And, quite frankly, I’m not doing them justice. I’m not really sure how much of that is perception because of how much I love them. Or if I just need to wait and get more experience, in life and as a writer. Or maybe we are just destined to love our creations that we recognize as imperfect.

About Amber Lin

Amber Lin writes sexy romance about messed up people, because everyone deserves a happy ending. Find her books or sign up for the newsletter at her website authoramberlin.com.
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17 Responses to A Writer’s Experience

  1. Ethan Hawke! Terry Gross interviewed him, Julie Delpi, and I think either the writer or the director (both?) of the “Before” movies, and it was fascinating. They evidently collaborated on the scripts to a much greater degree than I’d ever realized, especially on the third movie. Most of the discussion sounded more like three writers talking than a writer and two actors. And Hawke was sooooo articulate.

    One of the things they touched on was not dissimilar to your theme here, really. How that project has spanned so much time (eighteen years between the first movie and the third) and how their own perceptions have changed so much between the films. Things they thought were so important back then, that seem completely irrelevant when you reach middle age. Other concerns that have taken their place, and how those emphases changed the way they viewed the earlier films now. The things we feel are vital to shape our characters now (regardless of our age) always change in hindsight.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      And yet I think we spend our whole lives circling around the same subjects. I had this revelation when I was looking at my dissertation, of all things — 10 years later, and it was about dead babies, and yet in a number of weird ways it’s about the same stuff as my novels.

      • I think this is so, so true. I see it in other author’s work. The same themes – the same story questions – crop up again and again. I remind myself of that whenever I feel like I’m covering the same ground again. But they are the things I think about, late at night when I can’t sleep. So even when I don’t intend it, they creep into the work.

      • I wrote about this a while back, how we keep circling the same internal themes our whole adult lives. This quote made me feel better about it:

        “Over and over, we have to go back to the beginning. We should not be ashamed of this. It is good. It’s like drinking water; we don’t drink a glass once and never have to drink one again. We don’t finish one poem or novel and never have to write one again. Over and over, we begin. This is good. This is kindness. We don’t forget our roots.” –Natalie Goldberg

        • I love that quote. Day = made.

        • Sarah Wynde says:

          What a beautiful quote. I’ve actually been struggling with this in my own WIP — I finally, finally, finally found my stride on the book I’ve been working on for a year — and then I realized, wait a minute, it’s turned into a book about a lost child. Again! Third book in a row where I’ve tried to write a romance and found myself writing about a lost child instead. So maybe I just need to stop fighting it and accept that my subconscious is more interested in lost children than in romance.

      • Amber Lin says:

        Yes, I think so. And sometimes that feels a little depressing, like we are clearly grappling with questions that have no answers or where we can’t comprehend them, so why keep writing the books? On the other hand, if each book is reframing the question then maybe we are closer to the answer each time.

        • Or maybe the answer changes because as we grow, the question changes a bit too.

        • Ruthie Knox says:

          I like to frame this in terms of scholarship, because I have so many friends who are scholars. Historians, particularly, tend to write the same book over and over again. They tend not to be aware of it. Every time, it’s like, “Oh! Fresh, fantastic new subject.” But when you look over their whole career, their earliest work will take these thin slices of something, and then midcareer they are struggling mightily with synthesis and trying on new directions for looking at this thing, and by the end of their career they have often struggled for ten years or more to produce this one, vast, ambitious, frightening masterwork that is their final word on the subject, and is usually also the one book that utterly blows away the other historians, who are like, “Wow. This is astonishing. I will never think about X the same way again.” And only then do they realize that the work was all about the same thing, all along.

          It’s kind of a beautiful process if you look at it from that angle. Kindness, like Cherri’s Goldberg quote says.

    • Amber Lin says:

      I read about that in the reddit thing too! It seems really interesting.

  2. ” It’s about loving something that is by its nature imperfect and incomplete. It must be imperfect and incomplete, because if that’s still all I know, then I would not have grown since then.”

    This, here, is what all of us should be striving for in our HEAs. To bring our characters and the readers to a point at which all the imperfections have been acknowledged and loved, and that future and dramatic change has been accepted as inevitable and preferable over all other options.

    Too, I can never really fall out of love with the books I have loved before as a reader, because they are such an accurate journal and portrait of myself at that time. There is a way in which those book become more dear, because I can understand how it is I have changed, in a way more precise than if I tried to articulate my own perspective. As an adult, I can read KING OF THE DOLLHOUSE and think, “oh, I loved this because it spoke to all of these very physical things I needed as a child and wasn’t receiving,” even if at the time I just loved that book, and even if now I see problems with its gender roles and language. It’s my history, and it’s me, and so it’s vital to my re-reading.

    And as we write what we know, it isn’t that we’ll know new things, it’s that we’ll know the same things deeper. I write the same story over and over. Absolutely. I think it’s a good story, and I don’t have it quite right yet, even as parts of it are a little perfect. It’s the story I came with. It’s my story.

    I’m a reader because I want to understand something of your story.

  3. Fascinating discussion. I, too, find myself circling the same themes in my writing, and each time I have to force myself to think: It’s all right, because I’m approaching it in a slightly different way, chipping away at more and more of the idea, digging deeper and deeper until I hit truth–my truth, I suppose.

    I admit, I’m one of those people who can’t not write, but I also know that it does play a huge role in how I understand ideas and themes more deeply–in my reading, and in my life. I don’t mean this to sound so grand. I freely admit my life is small. Perhaps through writing I seek to make it broader?

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      “I’m approaching it in a slightly different way, chipping away at more and more of the idea, digging deeper and deeper until I hit truth–my truth, I suppose.”

      What a perfect way to put it. You’d think you were a writer or something. :-)

  4. Shelley Ann Clark says:

    Oh, Amber, I needed to hear this. I’m only on my second book, but so far it has elements in common with the first– the idea of an absent parent, of class differences between the hero and heroine, of a particular kind of dynamic in the relationship. . .and when it was first pointed out to me, I panicked.

    But there are obviously ideas that all writers are working through, although that doesn’t mean they keep writing the same book over and over. We talked in Del’s post about shame. Victoria Dahl and Charlotte both write books that explore that topic again and again, and yet each book is unique and fantastic.

    And yes, to your notion that we learn by writing. Absolutely. Which means that what we think once we’ve finished a book may not be what we thought when we started. I just want to hug you and this whole post, basically.

  5. Shari Slade says:

    I love how this is so much the opposite of write what you know.

    It’s more like: use what you know to write what you don’t…until you do. Or something. Which is wonderful, mostly because half the time I think I don’t know anything.

    I feel like I’ve written the same poem eleventy-billion times. Not that I’ve used the same words, or the same speaker, but they’re all variations on a theme. The same goes for my longer works, though there are less of them to consider.

    It’s like tipping a kaleidoscope towards the sun, the bits inside don’t change…they shift and reflect until a new pattern emerges. I’m just trying to get some light on my truth. Whatever that truth may be.

    Perfectly imperfect. *love*

  6. A.J. Larrieu says:

    I love this post.

    There’s only one writing quote I really like. It’s from “The Writer’s Little Instruction Book,” which I’ve never read, but I ran across this quote somewhere, and it’s stuck with me: “Write in order to make sense out of some aspect of your life.”

    This is why I write every book. No other reason offers enough motivation, and I think it’s what people really mean when they say they “can’t not write” (myself included).