Want To Be A Writer? Then Go Out And Do Some Sh!t!
“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
That is one of my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quotes. Here, he’s talking about his friend and known wild man, Oscar Zeta Acosta (aka Dr. Gonzo), but I think it perfectly captures what it means to be a unique writer. We all like to think we’re special or that our writing is one of a kind, but the truth is, most of us simply rehash the writing and storytelling styles we grew up reading. Sure, we put our own little spin on it, but are we actually bringing anything new to the game?
The title of this article is pretty self-explanatory; if you want to be a writer, you need to go out and some shit. Meaning, you need experience—real life experience. Don’t get me wrong, there are outliers (such as H.P. Lovecraft) who can be excellent writers despite rarely ever leaving the house, but most of the greats lived far beyond the words they put to the page. Take Ernest Hemingway for example. He lived a crazy, wild life full of adventure, loss, joy, and everything in between.
Living a full life of experience was a common theme among writers in the early to mid 20th century: Jack London was an adventurer, Tolkien, Hemingway, and C.S Lewis were in WWI, Joyce and Fitzgerald were frequent party goers, Vonnegut was in WWII, and Hunter S. Thompson was simply a madman who did damn near every drug there is to try.
I’m not saying you should do copious amounts of drugs or climb the tallest mountain, but going out and experiencing life will have a significant impact on your writing. We can only “make up” so much stuff before the readers begin to see through our facade. A good example of this is when you read the depictions—sexual and in general—of women by authors who haven’t had much romantic experience. That’s how we end up with awful descriptions like, “Her breast were bare and humble like baby Jesus.” or, “They felt soft to the touch like two supple bags of creamy pudding.”
Chances are, if you read something like that, the author has never felt a boob in their life. This doesn’t just apply to sex, though. It’s hard to write about any drama you’ve never experienced for yourself in the real world. You can write about child abuse at the hands of an alcoholic parent with decent description, but it’s almost impossible to capture that raw feeling a child has in those moments if you’ve never experienced it. The same goes for relationship drama, drug addiction, war, poverty, affluence, and various other spectrums of the human experience.
I’m not telling you that you can’t write about such things if you haven’t experienced them. What would be the fun in writing if you only wrote what you have firsthand experience with? What I’m saying is that you can really take your writing to another level if you incorporate some of your real life experiences into your fiction. Had a crazy time at a strip club once? Maybe your character has a crazy time at a stripclub—only their time is far more exaggerated and ridiculous. After all, that’s your job as a writer. You make the mundane (or even the not so mundane) way stranger, wilder, more exciting, sadder, happier, more fun, etc. This is what Hunter S. Thompson did with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He took his real drunken, drug induced, mayhem filled accounts of a trip to Vegas, and made it even crazier to the point where you have no idea what was real or made up.
He’s known as the godfather of Gonzo journalism—making yourself the star in a semi-fictionalized version of the events you’re covering. To become a good fiction writer you need to do this to a certain degree as well. The difference being that your story is complete fiction. Of course, even a completely fictitious story isn’t always so fictitious. Take Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, for example.
The novel is about a group of young people in the 20s going on a pilgrimage of sorts throughout Europe. There’s lots of drinking, fighting, and bull fighting. If you’re familiar with Hemingway the person, you’re probably thinking this sounds more like his actual life than a work of fiction. Well, you’re correct. This novel—which made him a star in the literary world—was more or less a recounting of his early days in Europe with his friends.
You don’t need to go as extreme as Hemingway, though. Let’s get a little more funky and look at Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. This story is about a man who is taken by aliens and gains the ability to travel throughout any moment in his life. It’s very unlikely Vonnegut ever traveled through time or found himself held captive in an alien zoo, but this novel is very autobiographical. It deals with his experience in WWII, which adds a great deal of realism to what would otherwise be an absurd story.
This unique writing choice made for one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. So to quickly summarize everything I’ve been talking about, go out and live! Trust me, life experience will make you a better writer. Far too many modern writers spend their days glued to their phones or in front of the TV. This won’t help you craft original ideas. If anything, it will muddy your imagination and make you accidentally swipe ideas from the work of others. So go out and do something worth writing about!
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