Friday, December 4, 2015

Learn Something New

All writers tend to get stale over time. Most are rule-followers. They’re the ones who turned in their homework on time in school, played clarinet in the marching band, didn’t have premarital sex. As adults, most writers play it safe. They drive defensively, wear sunscreen, eat right, and consult experts before making big decisions. For the most part, they don’t take risks.

The primary goal of any writer is to produce work that resounds with authenticity. We must create detailed non-fiction that holds our readers and exciting fiction that leaves them spellbound. And taking the safe path won’t always cut it. Comfort zones hold writers back both in life and in their work.

Ernest Hemingway definitely took chances. He was cut down by a hail of bullets in World War I, recovered and skied the Alps, hunted lions on foot in Africa, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and fought fish as big as him in the Caribbean.

British writer Rebecca West took to the streets of London to advocate for women’s suffrage, probed the guts of Yugoslavia to write her nonfiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, covered the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, and risked arrest while exploring the slums and prisons of Johannesburg to report on apartheid.

Both used their experiences to prime their creativity. They actively sought to learn new things, not only to keep their writing fresh but to make them better and more interesting persons. To keep from getting stale, you need to learn something new.

Though a glancing acquaintance with something is often all you need to extrapolate accurately when writing fiction, most fiction writers today do extensive research to make their locations and their characters come alive. It goes without saying that non-fiction writers, to get what they need for their articles and books, need to do detailed research. Sometimes, they even have to learn all about a subject before they can write intelligently about it.

There are lots of ways to learn—and not all of them involve school. The idea that taking a class is the only way to learn comes from years of schooling. But the whole world is a classroom, and today, writers can go anywhere by searching the Internet.

But let’s start with the obvious. You may want to take a class to improve your writing skills. Professional dancers continuously take classes to improve their skills. Most writers don’t. If you write non-fiction, what about taking a class in short-story writing to learn how to write in scenes and add new dynamics to your work. If you write fiction, why not take an article writing class. You may find being limited to the facts a challenge.

And how about taking a class to learn how to use your new digital camera effectively in your work. Digital isn’t at all like 35mm, no matter how much camera manufacturers and many professional photographers would like it to be so. The new technology opens up a whole world of visual possibilities.

You can also learn a foreign language or learn to search your family’s history in a genealogy course. And while you can learn the basics of any subject in a class, it’s not a means of intense study. Only you can provide that.

Travel is a great way to learn about other cultures. By observing other cultures first hand, you’ll develop a better understanding of how everyone fits together on this planet. But it may also offer the opportunity to develop a new specialty or a chance to expand on a subject you currently write about. You don’t have to go to the extremes that Hemingway did, but you should learn to see other cultures in depth. Avoid traveling with a tour. Instead, go alone or with a friend or spouse. Focus on one culture—don’t hop from country to country, culture to culture. Experience unusual things while there. Go off the beaten path.

If you can’t afford to travel much, take advantage of Google Earth Street View. With it, you can plunk yourself down just about anywhere to get the feel of a place. Perhaps you want to create a walking tour of an historic district, but it’s been a while since you’ve been there. Google Earth has probably been there much sooner. Viewing your route with it will jog your dusty memories and give new life to your writing.

Lastly, learn from experience. You experience new things every day. Some of them are so small that you don’t pay much attention to them. But everyone has some major experiences. Learn from them by viewing and analyzing them as a writer. Learn first, then put what you’ve learned into words.

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