The Case for Experience Outside of Writing
By Garrett Grams
How can my writing possibly improve if I don’t write? Yes, that’s a contradiction, but what I mean by not writing is don’t only write.
It is common for a writer to consider only writing for a period. It may be when you’re stuck or not seeing return on your investment in writing. It may just be that you’ve heard how isolation has worked for others.
Be warned, however: this romantic ideal of focusing only on writing can limit your perspective.
You’ve seen it in movies and read it in books, and possibly even come across it in a few true-life stories: the main character stops everything and focuses only on their specific craft. In fiction, it almost never fails. In real life, it can make you jaded and bitter.
Without discounting the times that a monomaniacal focus might have worked for some, there are lessons to be learned by investing your time in new creative ventures. There is a wealth of knowledge and experiences out there in the world. With experience comes perspective — and perspective is a great way to improve your writing.
Whether it’s doodling, painting, or any new craft, the lessons learned from one discipline can cross over between crafts and allow them to feed one another.
Expanding your perspective can be taken beyond just new and exciting crafts, however. To expand your horizons further, I can think of no better option than travel. By travel, I don’t mean taking a seven-day cruise or renting a private villa on an island, complete with margaritas and foot rubs — though these certainly have their time and place.
Travel to a place you don’t speak the language. Walk through a city with no map and no destination. These types of experience grow you as a person. The challenges and surprises found along the way, both good and bad, will give you insight into others’ perspectives. You’ll have walked endless miles in countless people’s shoes.
Throughout it all, write. But by not focusing on just writing, but rather trying and experiencing new things, a new perspective will grow inside you — and your writing will grow with you.
The Romantic Ideal
It sounds appealing to drop everything in pursuit of your craft. To cut distraction out from your life completely, move up to a cabin in the woods like Thoreau, and live out your days writing and only writing.
It is a romantic notion and one that every writer contemplates from time to time; I know I have.
What would it be like to truly go for it? What if that’s what it really takes to break through and become that ultimate success?
It has worked for a few of us. J.K. Rowling was living on welfare while writing Harry Potter. Bukowski was living on the streets and writing in the blank space of leftover newspapers. They sacrificed everything for their art and broke through just when things looked grim. What you don’t hear about, however, are the thousands that it didn’t work for.
Do you really want to be the starving artist? What happens when there really is no food left?
More importantly, does only focusing on your craft give you the perspective you need to be good at your craft? Thoreau himself said, “How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live.”
By ignoring the spice of life (meaning the multitude of experiences that surround us) in the pursuit of only getting better at writing, you shoot yourself in the foot.
If we are not interacting with life, how can we possibly portray it in our work?
While the romantic ideal seems appealing at times, not only might it not be practical, but it may be making your writing dry. Dull. Boring. Not edgy enough. Unrelatable.
I don’t mean to discount all writing or even writing a lot. What I’m saying is it shouldn’t be the only thing you do.
Solely identifying with an occupation, like saying, “I’m a Lawyer,” “I’m a Doctor,” or, “I’m a Writer,” while saying that you’re nothing else is silly. You are someone’s child. Possibly someone’s parent or grandparent. Uncle. Aunt. Soccer coach. Weekend kickball player.
To cut everything out of your life and go all in on the romantic ideal is a significant commitment that may not turn out to really be worth it.
Instead, it is helpful to invest your time in areas outside of writing. Creativity is not limited to how you order your words, and there is much to be learned by expanding your creative horizons.
Writers can benefit by learning a craft outside of writing. A tremendous opportunity for growth and learning exists outside of your primary craft.
In the creative arts, playing in secondary art forms while keeping writing as your primary art form can help you access your growth potential and expand your perspective.
In learning something new, you go into the mindset of a beginner — the place where anything is possible. The rules and style you have learned along the way with your writing do not exist yet in this new craft.
This is great because it allows the mind to play. Learning a new art with the beginner’s mindset will allow the mind to return to when you were a beginner in writing. This can free the mind of constraints. You can experiment with new styles and methods until you find something that works.
It can be frustrating to learn something new, especially when you have high expectations that this new craft will give you something. I suggest instead going in with no expectations beyond having fun learning a new thing.
Draw Out Your Creativity
One of the fun and easy crafts to get into that directly feeds into writing is drawing.
I’d bet more than a handful of us are doodlers. We draw in the margins, above the headers, or make animals out of numbers and letters.
This is your mind at play, toying with new ideas, and drawing outside the lines. Drawing could be taken a step further, however.
Rather than only drawing outside the margins, use a fresh canvas. Draw a character that isn’t totally fleshed out in your mind. You might find new characteristics you didn’t know existed.
Just like writing, drawing looks at form, the contrast between light and shadow, and how to use white space.
A lot of writers fall into the trap of info-dumping, explaining every minute detail so the reader is left with nothing to imagine. Learning to use the white space in drawing can teach us to be sensitive to when details are better left out.
In terms of the contrast between light and shadow, drawing can teach us how an image (or story) becomes stronger when there is a strong contrast between the light and shadow. In writing contrast between light and dark, it is necessary to create tension, raise stakes, and makes the words pop out from the page and come to life.
When your imagination is pushed into a new arena, the same creative tendrils that assist your writing will assist your drawing. Expect your creativity to feel refreshed as your new skill improves.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a person you draw, either. It could be anything that is currently floating around in your head and scratching to get out and become something more than just a thought.
Or if you don’t have something to draw already, something I like to do is draw something gibberish and nonsensical, like a swirl of lines, and turn it into something that someone else could recognize. Think of it like looking at a cloud and letting your mind tell you what the shape looks like. Or like one of those ink splotches that psychologists use to access the subconscious.
The blank canvas is a breeding ground for fresh ideas. You may draw something that sprouts an idea for something else — perhaps the tree you drew kind of looks like a person’s face, and you decide to write a story about the first tree with human-like intelligence.
Drawing allows us to see what is in our heads. Words are great for this as well, but as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Sorry for the cheesy line, but it’s the truth. What will your drawings tell you?
There are a million possibilities to discover with drawing, but it’s not the only craft that lends itself to creative inspiration.
Music to Our Ears
Music is possibly the purest form of self-expression there is. It can stir emotions deep inside us, bring us to tears, or make us scream in elation.
Chances are you had band class or chorus in school growing up. At the very least, you’ve probably sung in the car a few times. There is a primal urge for music that dates back to human beginnings; when we still lived in caves, the thunder of elephant hooves got our heart racing.
Music can speak to everyone, just as there is music inside us all, waiting to pour out. In learning a new instrument or learning to sing, you’re learning to express yourself with sound. You’re listening and learning to hear better.
In learning how to sing or play music, you learn the importance of timing, pauses, organization, and crescendo. These skills carry a direct correlation to writing.
Think of a story or article that builds to a climax where the action is high or the key point is delivered. This is crescendo, the building loudness in music towards the high point. Music and writing form shapes that need to keep a consistent flow and voice to make sense to the listener or reader.
It can be frustrating to learn how to make music, but the rewards are worth the effort. The time spent learning music will feed your writing style and allow you to reach deeper into the creative well.
Drawing and music are only a few examples of the many art forms we can learn. You could take up a martial art, learn Japanese calligraphy, or build a treehouse.
Taking up a new craft will give your mind an opportunity to apply all your creative writing genius in a new arena. The two crafts will work together to expand your creative horizons.
Another great way to improve your writing is to open up to new experiences.
We each exist inside a self-made comfort zone. This is the place where our collective experience gathers and where our perspective on life exists.
The comfort zone is, well… comforting. We have conquered various challenges and obstacles, and arrived at a place where we feel we have a general-to-expert knowledge on the way things are.
The comfort zone is also the place in which experience stagnates and growth plateaus.
It is in the challenges and obstacles of life that we go from no experience to some level of experience.
There are certainly challenges to overcome in our writing, and perhaps you have conquered many of them already. You probably exist somewhere along the spectrum of writing experience. But there are plenty of other spectrums that exist in life that are waiting for you to conquer them.
This area, the area outside your comfort zone, is where your perspective on life widens. This is the place where you learn about yourself and grow as a person, and at the same time, grow as a writer.
In my own life, I have found that travel offers the perfect amount of perspective-widening experience.
Specifically, I am talking about solo travel. When traveling with a group of friends or family, you are bringing a piece of the comfort zone with you and a certain level of co-dependence will exist.
By traveling solo, especially to a new area, you throw yourself completely outside of your comfort zone–and there is no better place to learn.
It could be as simple as going to a neighboring town, or a few steps further to a country halfway across the world. The longer you stay, the more opportunity there is to learn.
The reason for this is simple. Different areas have different ways of doing things. When you are in these new areas, you have the opportunity to walk in new shoes, or at the very least, see how other people experience life.
The next town might be a college town with a totally different demographic who has newer, more radical ideas. Or it might be a farm town where the pace of life is a bit slower and more conservative than you’re used to.
The country on the other side of the planet will have different views on family, friends, and career. The political environment will be different. The religious environment will be different. The people will be different. The perspective on life will be different.
That is, of course, if you leave the hotel room. A new perspective will be hard to gain if you lie in bed watching familiar TV shows. You’ll need to get out there. Go to a local coffee shop. Explore the city without looking up directions. Immerse yourself in your environment.
You will be a sponge, but a large part of you might resist the new experience. There will certainly be discomfort. Just as it can be frustrating to learn a new skill, it will be frustrating to experience a new place.
There will be challenges, and these will be magnified by how different the place is from what you’re used to. However, there will also be growth through learning. As you grow, you will learn new ways of doing things and be presented with new perspectives to consider. When you overcome the challenges, you will widen your perspective. Your experience will go from static to dynamic — and so will your writing.
A wider perspective on life, earned by walking in other people’s shoes, will give you a wider range of material to work with when writing. There will be a multitude of experiences to pull from.
During this time, a journal can help capture the daily events and impressions. You could also do writing exercises, like describing your favorite restaurant or favorite place to get coffee. With this material, you could start writing fiction or begin thinking of how to incorporate the experience into an article.
While, in my own opinion, travel is the best way to widen your perspective, it is by no means the only way.
In line with creative cross-training, look to activities that will give you experiential cross-training. Take a class at a local university. Go to a concert in a music genre you’re unfamiliar with. Do something that scares you.
The wider your perspective, and the more filled your life is with a wealth of experience, the better your writing will be. You will be able to write from many different viewpoints, with direct experience to back up your words. It will lend truth and depth to your writing, and you’ll have learned a ton about yourself along the way.
…And Write the Whole Time
The single best way to get better at writing is to write. This does not mean it should be the only thing you do, though. There has to be space to eat, and sleep, and live.
With creative cross-training, you allow your brain to express itself in new creative ways. This could mean drawing, learning an instrument, or any other craft that focuses your creative energy in a new direction.
Learning a new creative skill teaches us more about the creative process, which ultimately improves our writing.
Exploring the world outside of your comfort zone and widening your experience serves the same goal.
Whether you go near or far, when you travel your perspective on life will inevitably expand. This experiential cross-training can also be done in a wide range of ways beyond just travel. It comes down to doing something you don’t normally do, preferably solo, to live your life in a new way.
With a wealth of experience behind you and a wider perspective on life, your writing will undoubtedly improve.
So get out there, see what life has to offer, and all the while, write. There is a whole world of opportunity ripe for the picking. It’s waiting for you, so go find it!
This article first appeared on CraftYourContent.com. Want to learn all the things about becoming a better writer and how to improve your brand with quality content? Click here to get The Writing Rundown, delivered direct to your inbox every other weekend.
Originally published at www.craftyourcontent.com on June 22, 2017.