To convey things beautifully to others, experience them firsthand

A writer is advised: “write what you know.”

You can interpret this straightforwardly – that we cannot write about a lifestyle we have never lived or cite facts we’ve never learned – or you can read a richer meaning; a more comprehensive suggestion; that, for example, we can seek to write better by absorbing and analyzing the details through real life.

An artist may learn to draw by attending classes and by studying – at length – the works of other artists. An artist intent on creating good work must also study real life… put simply, they should seek to touch the thing that they are trying to recreate in pencil or paint.

An artist often becomes drastically better at drawing faces after touching one – after pressing their palm against someone else’s face for the first time since touching a mother’s in early childhood. Through this, one begins to really internalize the contours of bone structure; muscle; skin.

Shading feels differently with this knowledge; when you intuitively understand how the contour you are creating actually feels in real life. This difference is difficult to describe unless you have experienced it, but if you have, you know what I am talking about.

You can mimic the strokes and styles from someone else’s work, or you can take a drawing class on how to create them, but there is a huge difference between studying what something looks like and studying what something feels like, knowledge gained beneath your own hand. The two experiences are a whole world and level of comprehension apart; as though the latter has more dimensions – that being, of course (on the most simple and straightforward level), three versus two.

horse shoulder, Richard Baxtor

And it is faces, but it is also animals – the tremendous curve of a horse’s shoulder or the tendon of a dog’s hind leg. And yes, figure drawing. One learns the shape of a calf much differently feeling the swell of the muscle firsthand than one would trying to recreate it from an image.

It is the same way with writing.
I advocate taking classes and learning technique and researching what makes writing “good.”
I also advocate the reading and re-reading of other works – pieces that sell well or pieces that are highly-regarded within the writing community (and, it is important to note, these pieces are very rarely the same.)

But at the end of the day, I think good writing comes from experiencing life. The big parts. And the tiny, miniscule, seemingly inconsequential parts, too.

It is not just a matter of “not writing about the south if you have never been” and “not writing about addiction if you have never used drugs.” It goes beyond that. Writing what you really know is not just for the sake of accuracy and persuasion, but for the sake of the craft. For passion. Beauty.

Lay down in the grass in the late summer sun and let the sensation seep into your pores – stay there, or repeat it, until you have something rich to say about it; until you can create something more beautiful than the recreation of other writers’ words, which often sound like those I just used.

Feel heartbreak for yourself. Internalize the disorientation of walking in the fog as you run your hand along the roughness of a stone wall.

One writer may describe heartbreak in another way entirely. And that’s the magic of it. We each experience it a little differently. But when we relay it back to each other in our work, we get it. We look at the works of great artists and they show us something that we recognize, done in a way that we have never seen it before.

This is a woman crying (Picasso, 1937)

But it is not enough to get what others are doing; the aspiring artists must go to the source for ourselves.
So. What does heartbreak mean to you?

What about happiness?

What are these things and how do they look? Both on an everyday basis and in general. Because writing is not just about discussing the emotion. It is about conveying the experience. Great writing happens with passages like:

When we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully. (Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.)

This is good work – the real work. Go experience things for yourself and then articulate the beauty of all sensations to others.


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