The Worlds You Build Must Be Your Own
When I was eight, I read a biography on the back of a science fiction book. I no longer remember whose biography it was, but it boasted dishwashing and university teaching, and I thought “This is the sort of biography I want to have.”
Off the top of my head, I’ve worked as a farmhand, a multilingual scientific translator, a professional clothes presser, a college instructor.
And compared to the rest of these people here, I’m pretty boring. We have people who raise horses and people who cuddle sharks, we have people who have worked in law enforcement, people who did geological surveys in the back of nowhere, and people who fought in real wars, and people who pilot airplanes. We even have a Monkey.
What I mean to say is not that you can’t write until or unless you have an interesting resume. Some people manage pretty interesting world building from book knowledge. And some people are sane enough to take the right lessons from those books.
But sanity for writers is a negotiated thing. And this week I got to hear what some people think people on this blog believe. Yep, I won’t lie, I giggled. I’m never a big conspiracy theory person, and that one was the kind I wouldn’t come up with, not even for my characters.
I’m not going to go into it, because there’s no point. I might, at some point, on my blog, discuss the insanity of turning your own assumptions upside down and thinking that’s what people on the other side think or see.
But mostly what it does betray is a simplistic view point and living in a bubble of people who all think the same.
I was talking to Dot a little while back, between novels, move, preparation for move, and she was telling me how she plans to keep sane now that her family is a two-writer family. Something about getting out of the house. Something about getting a job just to meet with and experience real people and real life.
You see, it’s not even writers, as such, it’s anyone from college professors, to introverts who spend too much time with books: it’s easy to fall into a narrative fallacy.
What is a narrative fallacy?
It is the disease of our time, I think. Or at least no one until our time was as surrounded by story as we are. We are fed story in books, movies, games, comics, in fact just about everything. And the fascination with story has become such that even news try to fit a “narrative” — that is they try to fit a larger story.
So, what is wrong with that, you say?
A lot. You see, stories are logical. Stories present logical ordered actions and consequences (well, good ones, do.) The world is under no such constraint. While actions do indeed have consequences, it’s not usually as linear, as clean cut as in narrative. This is a necessity because narrative feeds the part of the human brain that seeks for a simple, understandable reason. In real life the wicked flourish like the green bay tree, and the righteous go unrewarded, because consequences for actions ripple and out and affect a lot more people than ourselves. Life is a chaotic system. Narrative isn’t. The human brain likes narrative. You could say it’s addicted to it.
And that’s fine, since that’s how we make our living. It is also a relatively harmless pleasure.
Given enough narrative, with no countervailing weight of the real world, you start thinking everything is narrative. This affects the way you live — no, seriously, I was cautioned early on not to try to construct a narrative of real life relationships. The persons cautioning me were right. We are, as writers, quite capable of adding up irrelevant incidents and getting to this huge, overarching plot that makes sense… in our head, except it’s not anchored in the real world.
They’re usually narratives like ‘what happened to the frozen chicken that I left on the counter’ but when it starts involving aliens, it’s time to back off. Or write it down.
And when you start imagining other people believe that kind of conspiracy… well, you might have spent too much time with people who work only with their minds.
I like carpentry, of course, which gives me a chance to go out and talk to people in lumberyards and hardware stores. But sometimes, all I really need is to take a long walk in an area where people are outside and doing things (okay, so not Colorado, in winter.) It’s one reason I like zoos and parks, and diners.
For maximum effect go alone. Take a book or something that you can seem to be absorbed in, and just listen. (When I was new to the country and the language I often took notes of interesting turns of phrase or ideas.) This, by the way, is particularly useful abroad. Go alone. Head for the places tourists don’t go. Learn enough of the language to listen. Going to another country in a group and doing the tourist thing, unless you’re there for the palaces and the museums, will teach you nothing. If you want to know about other places — and on reflection your own — you must be alone, and you must speak the language, and you must not stick out.
However, to really get to know people, immerse yourself in a job. Work side by side with someone. It’s a long time — 10 years? — since I worked outside the house, mostly because I’ve been so busy with stuff like raising sons and fixing houses, and such stuff. I have taken some classes — not high intellectual stuff, but art for grown ups — although also not in a while.
After the next move I’m looking to immerse myself in local groups, volunteer at the hospital, perhaps even get a job that takes me away from my desk and out of my comfort zone a couple of times a week. And definitely walking in parks, and going to diners.
Because you can’t spin narrative from narrative. That creates nothing but thin and unconvincing pablum. Good writing comes from living. I’m not saying you write only what you know. You can still research. But that time out there, with people, gives you a feel for what real life is like and what real humans are like, beyond the people in your head, and even your peer group.
So, get out there and do something. I’m going for a walk.