On the Importance of Having a Life

There seem to be two kinds of writers.  (And my apologies for starting off with what is certainly a false dichotomy that is way overused).

Check out the author bios in the backs of the books.  One type reads like a random sampling of jobs listed at an employment agency, showing a writer who has supported themselves in every way possible to enable their writing habit.  It’s quite likely they’re still not a full-time writer, as it can be challenging to make a lot of money that way, and they’re still hustling one way or another to make ends meet.

The other type is someone who has had a steady career in some field.  For sf writers, that’s often a science or engineering career, or some other real day job requiring some professionalism and talent.

And one more point.  Most new writers or young writers are in their 30s.  Getting a book published before your late 20s is unusual.

There aren’t too many people out there who major in English, get an MFA, then start churning out novels and making a living right out of school.

Successful writers have lived a little and have paid attention.

I find that when I’m writing a book I have to lean on everything I’ve learned in every facet of life, not just my scientific acumen.  It’s about knowing people, knowing what’s interesting, knowing what kinds of things have already been written but more importantly what kind of things actually happen, and having a broad enough background to imagine life from the perspectives of others.

You have to “have a life” in order to do these things well, and it usually takes time and perspective.

Writers must put in the hours alone, in front of the keyboard, but too much of that or only that, and there’s nothing there to write about.  Fiction is about living.  You should have a life first in order to have anything meaningful to say to others about living.

Maybe these are truisms and obvious to most of us here at sfnovelists, but I find it important to remember, especially as I tend to be a binge writer and sequester myself away too much during the process sometimes.

Filed under Uncategorized. You can also use to trackback.

There are 15 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Alma Alexander

    This is the basic idea behind writing what you “know”. There is nothing specific that any given writer HAS to do – it isn’t written in stone that you have to have worked as a waitress in a greasy spoon diner, or picked snails off people’s gardens, or painted houses, or got married and had kids, or travelled to a town other than the one in which you were born, Antarctica, or the Moon. But living a real life gives you a little bit of insight even into things you have not personally got your own hands dirty with – and sometimes even the unlikeliest scenarios make at the very least metaphorical sense. Quite aside from having seen the footage of the Moon landings, we’ve walked amongst the stars. At least once. All it takes is falling in love.

  2. 2. Robert Walker

    Great post. I totally agree. Which is why I have to be honest when I say that I’m just not all that interested in some of these new fantasy novels written by people in their early 20s (or even younger). It’s not that I think they can’t write well, because they probably can. It’s rather that anyone that young cannot possibly have enough life experience to truly “say” anything to me. Again, that’s fine. So much comes down to what kind of stuff we like to read (and write).

    And it also speaks to something I have been thinking about lately. I write in a subtle style which requires a deeper reading than some popular fantasy. That’s not meant as a dig, it’s just that I like to write in layers, so to speak. Kind of like The Matrix. Most people enjoyed the wham bam action, or sci-fi coolness. I did, too. But it also happens to be one of the deepest movies I’ve ever seen. There are just layers and layers to that piece of work. It can be enjoyed on a superficial level, but also on levels much deeper.

    Now, this is not something a 21 year-old can do. Sorry, but it’s just true. But, it seems to me that most of the people out there deciding whether or not my work is “publishable,” are kids in their early 20s who are the assistants in the industry. Of course they’re not going to get my work!

    Anyway, it’s gotten kind of funny to me, lately, which I guess is better than being bitter about it!

  3. 3. Raethe

    Hello! I’m someone you’ve never seen before, come along to disagree with you.

    *ahem* I’m joking. Well, sort of. Annnnnyway.

    First, the original post – in this I absolutey do agree. I think it’s essential to have live a little in order to write well, or write true.

    Where I’d like to disagree is with Robert’s rather definitive statement that “this is not something a 21 year old can do”, and really just that principle in general.

    My position is this: Experience isn’t simply a function of age. You can live until forty, or eighty, and never “have a life” as the phrase goes. You can be young and be working, in school, in friendships, in relationships; you can have a catalogue of experiences both pleasant and unpleasant whether or not you’ve hit thirty.

    I’m an avid reader; I read a lot of things put on shelves by those authors who, as you say, have “lived a little”. I’m also a student, which affords me a wonderful opportunity to be part of a critique group, full of mostly twenty-something people who are writing stuff that is often in its own way as evocative and true as some of the stuff in bookstores.

    For your consideration, I submit to you Zadie Smith. She wrote the novel White Teeth in her senior year of college, which one myriad awards, is a movie, and generally pretty well-known and liked. I read and enjoyed the book myself, and I think it IS pretty rich with experience, despite the fact that Smith’s a relatively young author.

    Experience leads to good writing, but age is no guarantor of experience. Just my two cents on the matter. ~^

  4. 4. Leah Bobet

    “The other type is someone who has had a steady career in some field. For sf writers, that’s often a science or engineering career, or some other real day job requiring some professionalism and talent.”

    Hi, Mike. I’m one of those first-type people. I do not have a science or engineering career. And for various reasons, one of which being my financial situation and one of which being a serious curiosity about how things work, I have one of those bounce-around resumes, one that’s kept ends meeting.

    I assure you my job(s) require professionalism and talent, and they are very real.

    Please consider your assumptions; thanks.

  5. 5. Robert Walker

    >Experience leads to good writing, but age is no guarantor of experience.can lead to good writing; then again, maybe not. And while age does pretty much guarantee experience (on a quantitative, not necessarily qualitative, level), what it doesn’t guarantee is wisdom or insight. I haven’t read Zadie Smith, but here’s my point: If she was really that insightful at 22, just wait until she’s 32.

    Case in point: F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom I think we all can agree was of a pretty high caliber at a relatively young age. Read “This Side of Paradise,” which he wrote at 24, and then read “The Great Gatsby,” written at age 29. That’s what I’m talking about.

    I certainly meant no offense with my comments. As I said, there are many young people who write better than many best-selling “authors.” No argument there! But it is very rare for someone under, say 27?, to have gained any truly deep wisdom/insight. Again, I know you’re going to jump all over that. But, let me just say that I have always been “older than my age,” so, trust me, I know what you’re getting at.

    I don’t know. I hate blog arguments, and I’m not looking to start one. Suffice it to say that there is a certain opportunity for wisdom that comes as one gets older, with a quality that is simply not available to us at a younger age. And here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with that!

    Let me make one more point. Kant, one of the greatest western philosophers of all time, never left his tiny, little town in his entire life. A genius philosopher with “no worldly experience.” And yet, I guarantee that the ideas that make him a genius were not formed when he was 22. Seeds? Sure, why not. But, there’s a reason why the phrase “mature philosophy” is used when speaking about such greats.

  6. 6. Robert Walker

    Oops! Here’s how the first sentences should read:

    “Experience leads to good writing, but age is no guarantor of experience.”

    Well, experience *can* lead to good writing; then again, maybe not. And while age does pretty much guarantee experience (on a quantitative, not necessarily qualitative, level), what it doesn’t guarantee is wisdom or insight. I haven’t read Zadie Smith, but here’s my point: If she was really that insightful at 22, just wait until she’s 32.

  7. 7. Raethe

    I was in error in two things, it seems. First off, I didn’t mean that experience -always- leads to good writing (but in my opinion, it certainly helps!). Secondly, I didn’t mean to come off as offended or looking just to start an argument for argument’s sake, so if I did, my apologies.

    I definitely agree that for the most part one gets better as one gets older. Mostly I wanted to point out that while a lot of people don’t make their way into a writing career while they’re fresh out of college, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule.

    And to my chagrin I must admit that I haven’t actually read The Great Gatsby. Now I’ll have to read This Side of Paradise first, I suppose.

  8. 8. Jaime

    “The other type is someone who has had a steady career in some field. For sf writers, that’s often a science or engineering career, or some other real day job requiring some professionalism and talent.”

    You know, I actually linked to this post on LJ until someone pointed this out to me. I took the link down once I realized what you were really saying–only those lucky enough to have the advantage of education and money can be truly professional. While I was agreeing with the life experience section of the essay you slipped the knife in.

    The sad thing is that I’ve heard this kind of thing from so called ‘professionals’ so often during my working life my eyes slid right by it. As one of the first kind of writers you reference, the ones who do jobs to pay the bills and survive while writing, I’ve grown used to being told a trained monkey could do my job and no one would ever know the difference. And I don’t even blink anymore at being told none of the jobs I’ve held are “real jobs”.

    Desensitized much? Maybe just a little.

    I do wonder how many of the highly educated, well paid scientists and engineers, the ones with the real professionalism and talent, could do nine, ten hour shifts standing on their feet and still come home and write every night. Just how long would their commitment to writing last?

    I’d place a wager on which type of writer gains more life experience in the bargain, but that would be a sucker bet.

  9. 9. Mike Brotherton

    Oh, you silly people! Leah, Jaime, what I’m saying is that science and engineering are not the only kinds of careers that require “professionalism and talent.” I’m not saying anything more than that. You have to be overly sensitive to misinterpret this, don’t you? And the potpourri sort of resume may or may not require “professionalism and talent,” but I’m not saying anything about that one way or the other.

    Really, my pet peeve on blog comments is people getting twisted up on their own issues when they’re not intended, and assuming the worst of an author. Apparently I could have worded this part more carefully, but please. Why is everyone out to assume the worst and always assume that they’ve got it right???

  10. 10. Jaime

    Mike,

    I will accept that what you wrote is not what you meant, but you still wrote it. I wasn’t the one to equate real day jobs and professionalism with science and engineering.

    And I’m not going to debate with you about context and wording things carefully, because I’ve learned the writer trying to break in never, ever wins against the established pro. The feeding chain doesn’t work that way.

    I will say this. Writers I respect a great deal have taught me two things. A writer lives and dies by their words and once it’s out there, you can’t take it back.

    The second is that you can’t control the reader’s fifty percent.

  11. 11. Leah Bobet

    Hi, Mike–

    Thanks for the reply. I have to beg to differ about being “silly people”, “overly sensitive”, or a “zealot”, though. I’m not sure calling me or Jaime names really disproves the point. If you know that this was sloppily worded–

    “Apparently I could have worded this part more carefully, but please.”

    –maybe you should consider that a more helpful or productive response would have gone like “Apparently I could have worded this part more carefully. Sorry, dudes. I’ll check for that next time.” Because, like Jaime, I’m afraid what I read still looks to be what you wrote, and as was once said to Greg Feeley, if you’re a professional writer and people are consistently (apparently) misreading you in the same directions, you may have a problem on your hands.

  12. 12. Mike Brotherton

    I get offended like everyone else when accused of something nasty they didn’t do, or didn’t mean. Like others I don’t always respond in the wisest manner. Even the most carefully chosen words get tripped over by some people some of the time, especially on the internet where few words are the most carefully chosen, and thus the flamewar was created.

Pingbacks

  1. Matt’s Bookosphere 7/11/08 « Enter the Octopus
  2. Stephanie Gunn » On having a life
  3. Well-Meaning Anti-Whatever Zealotry and the Perils of Blogging | Mike Brotherton: SF Writer

Author Information

Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

Topics

Archives

Browse our archives:

RECENT BOOKS