A lot of people think a writer has to live in order to write, has to meet people and have a rich series of experiences or his work will become dull. But that is drivel. It’s an excuse a writer uses to take the day off, or the week or the month off for that matter. The thinking is, if we go play Frisbee in the park we’re going to have a thousand words busting out of us when we get back to the house. We’re going to write all kinds of beautiful prose about playing Frisbee. It’s never worked for me. Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer while still in her mother’s womb, wrote one of her books in a concrete cell. She says most of what a writer needs to really live they can find in a book. — Donald Miller
After this quote in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Miller proceeds to talk about how he starts to do more things, like search for his father and plan a hike to Machu Picchu, so I must admit – I’m not sure how to take this quote – sincere, partially sincere, wishful, sarcastic?
But since I tend to agree with the words and I like Donald Miller, I’m going to say they are sincere. (My prerogative as a reader, I’ll claim.)
One of the excuses I most readily pull to mind to avoid writing is that I have to get out there and do something or my writing will be dull and uninformed, which is true on a certain level, of course. But when I mean “get out there,” I don’t mean “have dinner with friends” or “take a great drive on a Sunday afternoon.” I mean “hike to Machu Picchu.” And the reality is that hiking to Machu Picchu, while being something I want to do, has very little to do with my writing or with my living, at least at this point on my path of life. Hiking to Machu Picchu is what I would plan if I wanted to avoid working on this hard and rewarding project I’ve got going. (Note -I am not at all saying that this is what Donald Miller was doing; his quest seems to be genuine, and mine would not be.)
So when I say I need to live, I mostly mean I need to write because that is what makes me feel alive and whole and healthy and strong. Not hiking to Machu Picchu. Writing.
I can do things that make me have stories to tell – like planning a trip to Alabama and finding a descendant of the people enslaved here through just the right Google search about that trip – and I can read, a lot, all the time. I can talk to people about my project and listen as people share their thoughts and concerns about history and slavery and race relations. I can swap stories and seek answers. This is all living.
But when I start to conjure up the list of things I should be doing, I’m in danger because that “should” signals that I’m guilting myself, and guilting is a by-product of too much thinking and too little doing. Ironically, it’s a sign that I’m wishing away the days I have to live.
So today, I’m going to devote myself to the work, pour myself into that mysterious space where the words form in my throat unspoken, and live the best way I know how . . . by writing.
What do you think of this idea that writers have to build great life experiences from which to write?