Monday, August 10, 2009

Writers=Deprived? Not so much

A recent comment left on agent Nathan Bransford’s blog suggested that true novelists are born out of deprivation. The person leaving this comment admitted he’s spent the past 20 years living in poverty so he could spend his “every waking moment either writing, reading, or thinking about fiction.”

Here’s my chance to refute this belief.

While there are successful novelists who view writing as a catharsis to their pain and certainly more than a few memoirists have profited from their horrible childhoods, to imply that the only true novelists are those who suffer is pretty narrow minded.

Yes, Stephen King spent years working horrific jobs before hitting it big with Carrie, but he continues to entertain us with his writing, and I doubt he’s lived in poverty in the past 30 years. Harvard-educated Dr. John Michael Crichton hardly lived a deprived existence before penning his novels. So, the sweeping generality that you must bleed in order to feel pain and then write about it is hooey.

Instead, I believe good writing can be achieved by drawing on your life experiences. I’ve never been homeless, addicted to anything stronger than tea, nor physically abused. But I have lived paycheck to paycheck, been divorced and had my heart broken.

I’ve skidded out of control on an ice-covered highway and gone airborne over a railroad track trying to make my curfew. My first real boyfriend was shot and killed in a hunting accident, and I watched my college friend make a difficult life-changing decision. While I’ve never lost a child, I have held a friend in my arms and cried along with her when she lost hers.

None of these life-altering moments have found their way into the stories I’ve written, but my perceptions of people and how they handle love and loss and tragedy certainly influence what I write.

As most writers do—forgive the sweeping assumption—I have a tendency to find perfect contentment behind the closed doors of my office and get swept away by the solitude of creating a world within my own. I choose the setting, the characters, their actions and reactions. It’s like giving birth without the excruciating pain.

But if I don’t step outside and connect with my environment, then I miss out. I miss watching the woman at the market who weighs my vegetables with careful hands while she talks to my daughter about riding on the tailgate of a rusted Ford through her grandpappy’s watermelon patch. How she never makes eye contact with me but seems captivated by my six-year-old who cradles a ripe melon in her arms. The woman’s muddy-brown eyes curtain with memories and I wonder if her long dark hair was once blond like my child’s.

So, forget being deprived. Instead, choose to be present.

If you write YA and it’s been a while since you were a young adult, then you’d better spend a lot of time around young adults, to observe their unique speech patterns and lingo and clothing and communication abilities. (I have two in my house and the home phone stays silent. Not at all like the household I grew up in, where four kids raced to the phone while it rang incessantly.)

If you write romance and you’ve never had your best friend steal your crush or loved someone who lived unaware of your longing, then you’d better have a broad group of friends who turn to you for advice and consolation when it happens to them.

If you write crime dramas, I’m assuming you’re either a cop, a detective, a private investigator, an investigative journalist or, well, a criminal.

I only expect you to live a minimal existence and wallow in a life of self-pity if you somehow choose to do so. I find nothing wrong with working a respectable 9-to-5 or part-time job—even if it has nothing to do with what you aspire to write about—while you write in the wee hours of the morning on your lunch hour and on weekends. I know lots of folks who do so.

Myself included.


  1. This is good Pamela, I am inspired at how you barely mention tender or tragic moments and my eyes get a little wet. I think good writing is a talent that for some, just comes naturally, like a singer whose musical gift drips off their tongues automatically; it's in their genetic makeup or something. Sometimes it is born out of life experiences and sometimes it is learned. But pity that man who said it is always out of deprivation; I hope you are able to send your post on to him? :)

  2. Hi Pamela,

    I agree with Renee. Most writers I know gravitate toward writing and find they need/want to keep doing it no matter what. I like what Elizabeth Berg said about writing - I need it. I crave it. I feel like a drug addict with a very wise choice of drug.

  3. What Scobberlotcher said--could there be a better addiction?


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