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.

69 thoughts on “The Worlds You Build Must Be Your Own

  1. I’ve done some kind of maintenance for most of my adult life, primarily in commercial properties. I think that taught me more about how people relate to each other than any number of sociology classes would have. When you’re fixing the locks or postage meters you get to be a fly on the wall in a wide selection of businesses.

  2. > Go alone. Head for the places tourists don’t go. Learn
    > enough of the language to listen.

    I’m going to mention “MiG Pilot” by John Barron again. After the CIA cut him loose he bought a car and started working his way west, zagging through the poorest parts the South. His Russian accent was too thick to hide, so he’d just drive along until he saw a diner or truck stop, get a cup of coffee by pointing, and just sit there for hours, listening to ordinary Americans going about their daily affairs.

    Crazy people who could – and did – say or do anything they wanted. And he was sitting there with a car and money in his pocket, and after a lifetime of regimentation, he could do the same.

    1. That is so awesome. I must find this book! I don’t get out as much as I’d like…or at all…for various reasons, primarily health-related, but if I don’t make myself go out and take a walk or something every once in a while, I’d have no chance at staving off -or delaying- the eternal, seemingly unstoppable march towards insanity my brain seems to be diligently undertaking. Nope. I’d go full turnip, no mistake. Heh.

      1. Belenko’s story was the most common for the defectors. He got fed up with the corruption, favoritism, backstabbing, and unfairness of the only system he knew, so he bailed.

        The difference between Belenko and most of the others was that he *believed* everything he had been taught about how evil and decadent the West was. He’d never been out of the USSR, and he hadn’t seen much outside of Siberia. He didn’t defect from ideology; it was more like an animal gnawing off a leg caught in a trap.

        The culture shock was… profound.

        Amazon says that even used paperbacks are a bit pricey now, but your local library might be able to snag a copy by Inter-Library Loan.

  3. The human brain is a screwy thing. Too much regimentation or change and it gets even worse. I surprised my manager when he learned that I worked 911 Fire/Rescue in addition to engineering (Apparently he missed some of my resume). But It’s for the same reason I volunteered repairing houses. My full time requires the analytical side of the brain and a good chunk of writing uses that too (I am a bad pantser). But working with my hands on a house or car or working a sick person or car wreck makes me have to think fast and react. Plus it gets me in contact with others.

    We need quiet and we need contact. And not just pleasant contact. Part of why the echo chamber of internet is not a great thing.

  4. One of the wonderful things about the job I used to have: I could leave a house where the internet seemed to be completely in an uproar, and “everybody knows” and “everybody thinks”, and then go spend the day wrangling roughly a hundred to two hundred people who all had wildly different opinions, motivations, accents, backgrounds, cultures, and dreams.

    It’s easy for humans to hate an abstract “other”, it’s much harder to blindly assume when you know real human beings. Large parts of social media run on outrage and stupidity, and it’s good to spend time with real people who are neither outraged, nor shallow, and where communication is much more important that clickbait attention-grabbing.

    On other random notes: OldNFO and my husband both now have applications in hand for the local police citizen’s academy. Not that they don’t have lots of experience in how it’s done elsewhere, but it’s never a bad thing to learn how it’s done here, and to get to know the fine folks here. If any of you are looking at writing things with police, or the law, I highly recommend you check out your own fine local law enforcement, to spend time with real people instead of drawing from the thin, baseless, and often wrong lore of the movies and cop shows.

    1. As to the early points, to a point. We are much more of a segregated country by opinion today. Go thru CA or Seattle and there is no hesitation for hating the inferiors that make living off the land as opposed to writing text to show people cat videos. And there is the corollary dislike on the opposite side. It’s a much wider variant of the “I know no one who voted for Nixon” remark.

      As to the latter. Yes. Yes. 1000X Yes! I am well known for yelling at TV when they do factual errors. Medical is another common one where they screw up often on TV. Heck. I was displeased with how Martian built their seats and how it was no issue for the ship to take off missing 200#

      1. And Mars is not, absolutely not, under maritime law. (Although it was funny how Watney logiced it out).

      2. oh, i get ticked off at the gun/gun law mistakes. NCIS episode , taking place in VA- “he had a registered handgun” bzzt WRONG

    2. Wait, are you trying to tell me Judge Dredd and Kerberos Panzer Cop are not standard police procedure?

      1. Nor are what’s in the Police Academy movies, not even “Citizens on Patrol”.

        (The above would have occurred to me even without hearing of the death of George Gaynes and belatedly learning of the deaths of Bubba Smith [Hightower] and David Graf [Tackleberry].)

    3. In addition to the Police Citizens Academy, check out if the Fire Dept and Dispatch also run Citizens Academies. And go on ride alongs if you can. There is some really, really weird (and sometimes quite funny) stuff that goes on both on the street and in the stations.

  5. “you can’t spin narrative from narrative.”

    So true! Even shut-ins like me must mine real life – I had one – and even the current limited human interactions – to make the narrative stand on something real.

    Choosing the details that make your world both familiar and strange requires knowing what these terms mean in a real world.

    That’s the fun part. That, and the spinning ‘what-iffs.’

  6. Y’all are almost depressing me. Compared to most folks here my life has been outright boring. 😉

    Not much real life experience to go on, but I do love research, so I guess that’s something. (and I was bold enough to ask people in the diner for help on a fight scene. – which for me actually was bold. I think I talk more here than I do in half my other sites combined.)

  7. I’m down right boring compared to most people and that’s okay. It’s part of why I like retail though I’ve considered getting a night job tending bar (cause I’m crazy) just to meet different people. Different character traits and backgrounds have made it into my stories from people I’ve met at work that I couldn’t even have tried to come up with on my own.

    1. I’m pretty boring, too. 🙂

      I’m actually enjoying my work at McDonald’s though. Most of the time. 😉

      Though if one of the managers quits, I might just go see if Panera is hiring.

    2. Wait – you work retail, and you think you’re boring? Unless you’re in some snobby boutique shop, you probably meet more different people in a week than most people meet in a year.

      1. See, it’s the customers who are interesting, not me. I might wait on a bounty hunter, a surgeon, a race car driver and a dozen nurses in a day but I’m still just me. And those are just the regulars. I would never even begin to know how to meet them in the course of a day without it being part of my job.

    3. A friend was a bartender for a while. He said it paid well, but he said he quit because if he had to listen to any more drunk, depressed, or crazy people he’d slit his wrists.

      1. That leads to an interesting question: Do a higher percentage of Bartenders, or Psychiatrists, commit suicide?

      2. My uncle was a bartender for a very long time. It paid well but he ended up drinking most of his tips for the same reason. I do depressed and crazy pretty often at my current job already.

  8. I may be wrong, but I think the point Sarah is trying to get across is not that you need the life experiences in these fields in order to write a good story, but you need to portray the human interactions as believable. That’s why it’s important to get out in real life and observe/listen to what’s going on. Boring life or exciting life is irrelevant to constructing a believable character.

    1. This! I got that from the post immediately, and understood because it’s true. I’ve been writing SF since I was 14, but most of my early fiction was unreadable because I had no idea how the world and other people actually worked. I hit a few times, but I missed a lot for each hit. Living for a few decades, and (much more important) PAYING ATTENTION to the world around me was the secret sauce.

      Fiction ultimately comes from nonfiction. Life is nonfiction. Immerse yourself in it.

      1. Life can also be watching the people living the fiction. Sometimes amusing, frequently tragic…

    2. And beware the echo chamber (esp. for those of us living on either coast). One thing that continues to amaze/baffle me is the sense of entitlement in the NYC area (LA is probably similar). Sports championships? Of course it belongs to NYC; if NYC is out of the running then the refs/game/series is stupid or full of cheaters, or … The idea that another team might simply be better really is inconceivable. So, even if you do live on one of the coasts, get out of the main hubs and go to the small towns, see how the other people live.

      1. and despite the net loss of population in L.A. and CA, they still think “everyone is coming to live HERE!”

        1. Well, that is forgivable. Everyone who they know is coming to live there, and none of them are leaving.
          The people who are leaving are never people they know.

    3. Agreed. I’m a little hyper-logical and would sometimes, when I was young, have trouble with things going wrong in a story because: “Who could be that stupid?”

      Having spent a few decades in the real world now, I know that everyone could be that stupid, including me (but only sometimes). Most rotten people think they’re doing something for a good reason. Relentless cynicism is usually a mask for laziness or a real lack of courage. People really do do things so other people will like them/not bug them/not laugh at them. And people fool themselves even more than they fool others. There are also people who try really hard and miss the boat for reasons totally out of their control. Others keep trying even when people laugh at them. And there are lots of people who do figure out how to be good people (for the most part).

      1. *sigh* “had” trouble
        [why do I miss the error when I proof, but see it at first glance right after I hit post?]

        1. It’s my belief that WordPress randomly tweaks the text before posting it… surely I couldn’t mistype as many words as I see when my posts pop up.

          1. I think you’re on to something. We need a study, and our posts will prove the validity of your theory. (I’m tempted to insert an error but am confident one will appear on its own). PWP

          2. When it comes to my typos, I wish I could believe that it was WP’s (or Word’s) fault. 😦

      1. what, you mean i haven’t been a starship captain and a post-apocalyptic good guy and a cat-person hunting dragons?

          1. this was referring to three games from the past week: Elite:Dangerous, Fallout 4, and Skyrim, respectively.

  9. I took a continuing education creative writing class in my early twenties which focused on critiques. Everyone else in the class seemed to have gone through the standard English Major kind of background and I was the only one from a blue collar background (and not as in friends and family who might have once worked a blue collar job, but pretty much every one I knew), so when it came time to do the critiques I noticed something fairly early: Most of the writers there had no idea how blue collar people actually were, how we actually talked, how we existed.

    They wrote in clichés. Hamfisted clichés at that.

    However, I didn’t initially think of that as a problem, more as a thing I could focus on and help them with. I was that, I am that, you want to know about that (which I presumed since they were writing about that) then I can help you with that. But not a one wanted the help. They didn’t want to listen. They didn’t want to change the work. They were happy with the work that was portraying rednecks/blue collar workers in a clichéd, negative light. My attempts to give context to what they had seen (they had interacted with those kinds of people but had clearly not understood the interaction and refused to accept that in a lot of cases the rednecks were mocking the cultured with their choice of words and way the rednecks presented themselves to the cultured) were not welcomed and certainly not believed.
    They honestly believed that somehow graduating University gave them a 40 point IQ jump on anyone who had not attended and seemed unwilling to believe that people can have an aversion to higher education that had nothing to do with aptitude for learning.

    Yes, they had met and listened to rednecks/blue collar people, but they simply could not get past their sense of moral and intellectual superiority to understand what they had heard. They wrote cardboard cut-outs of people with whom they disagreed and were made happy by it.

    And they can sell that, I’d rather there be nuance and care taken but in all honesty someone who is looking to laugh at rednecks/blue collar people would hate to read nuance and much prefer a stereotype they are comfortable with.

    Listening is great, but understanding takes thought, patience and care.

    1. This, this, this. Yes, they can sell it. Because the editors are also elitists. But to those of us who have lived in the real world, their work is flat and not interesting.

      1. And I’m sure that if someone returned the favor, they would react rather poorly*.

        * This, of course, is a poor attempt at the British Understatement, because if you think it would be that mild, you’re crazy. 🙂

      2. and they simultaneously like selling to fellow elitists, but don’t understand why only elitists are buying their books.

      3. This is, oddly, something I used to notice more in English writers for some reason. Perhaps because I was immersed in the US educational system (fish, water) but I was more sensitive to the smug sneering classism of the Brits

  10. I think it’s less “write what you know” and more “don’t write what you only know from other people’s stories.” There are some tropes and stereotypes that keep getting recycled in media because the writers–fiction, movies, television–don’t really know any of the kind of people they are writing about.

    Bikers are big, violent men and strippers in tight leather, for example. If you spend any time hanging out with real bikers, you’re not going to see TV bikers–you’ll see some similar outfits, because everybody likes to dress up, but mostly you’ll meet professionals who have the money and leisure to own and maintain an expensive machine. They are a lot more likely to be planning a Toys For Tots event than a drug run across the border.

    But ever since Easy Rider they’ve been the go-to heavy for a particular type of police drama.

    1. 1%ers. That’s all the media likes to show. In general, if I (or my daughter when she gets old enough to drive) break down on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere I’d rather a big, ugly, greasy biker (or trucker, or farmer, or…) stop than some guy in a BMW and an expensive suit.

      1. Oh, yeah. Not only will the biker, trucker or farmer probably have some real experience with maintaining a vehicle, they’re also more likely to come from a “help each other out in times of need” subculture than the guy in a BMW & suit.

      2. A friend instructed his daughter in basic auto maintenance, including having her change a tire on her car. So when she called from four hours away where she was going to college, he wasn’t particularly pleased to find that it was about a flat tire. He told her she knew what to do about it, or she could call a gas station or towing service if she wanted to pay someone else to do it.

        Daughter called Mother, major marital malfunction ensued, and he wound up driving four hours to “rescue” Daughter. As he slid up behind the vehicle he noticed three people were in it. Daughter had Boyfriend and another male friend with her; none of them wanted to get dirty changing a tire.

        At this point, the logical thing would have been to do a U-turn and head back home. Perhaps eventually there’s be a news report of cobwebbed corpses in a car; they probably wouldn’t be smart enough to order pizza while they waited for hell to freeze over.

        He changed the tire anyway. For some reason, he gets hostile when I bring the incident up…

          1. Nope. The only time I called to have friends help change my tires was when I was physically unable to do so. If I’d had guy friends standing there, I would have been Very Disappointed in their inability to be adults.

            If I’d forgotten how (and there weren’t, you know, written instructions tucked lovingly in with the spare tire), my father would have coached me through it on the phone. He wouldn’t have driven out. And if he had, then the car would not have rolled until every young man there had demonstrated competence at changing the tire, after doing it as many times as needed to demonstrate familiarity and mastery.

            I love my daddy.

    2. Though, one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard told was by a cop on vacation with the guy he was sponsoring in AA where they befriended a hang-around that ended up taking them into a Hell’s Angels event where they met Tiny and Sonny Barger. He had some explaining to do to the FBI when he got home.

    3. I’ve met an almost equal number of Bikers for Jesus as I have Sons of Silence. Very, very interesting experiences with both groups of people, none of which matched any portrayals I’ve seen in popular culture.

    4. THIS. If you research do real research. I love local biographies, common man-on-the street bios (your library will have them, or they used to. When grandma wrote her bio, she gave one to the library) war stories, and listening to people in diners and libraries and other places.

  11. Many years ago I read a number of Ted Sturgeon’s books, and recall a short bio on the back cover, or just inside, listing many (if not all) of the jobs he’d had and thinking, wow ya gotta have a lot or varied jobs to have the experience to be a good writer,

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