A Thousand Lives Without Leaving Yours*

A Thousand Lives Without Leaving Yours*

Fellow writers, know this: you will never get to experience all of the things your characters experience.

And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking thank goodness for that, since, you know, I write tragedies. But there is one major problem here. If you have no idea what it’s like to be in their situation, how are you meant to write about it?

This is something I’ve thought about for a while because many people’s reason for discounting teenage writers is that we ‘haven’t got the life experience to write about life’. Apparently, because we haven’t been through heartbreak and grief and massive anxieties, we can’t write (and this in itself is a stereotype, since many people my age have been through all of those things).

This isn’t true. This is completely wrong.

Whether you’re 10 or 70 years old, you’re never going to go through everything that a character goes through (unless you are incredibly unlucky). And that doesn’t matter.

A very long time ago, I wrote a post for Mark Williams International which he hasn’t (yet) run. So I’m going to steal some aspects of it and elaborate on them.

There is nothing I find harder in writing than looking through the eyes of someone completely different to me.

But even though I haven’t had the same experiences as my characters, I’ve had experiences. They might not have been dramatic, but I’ve had them – and they’re the first and they’re all new, and hey, hormones make everything seem worse. I’ve felt pain and loss and separation. Characters lose parents and siblings and friends; I’ve lost grandparents, the people who spoiled me and encouraged me and took photos of me while I was eating. I’ve felt how difficult it is to make decisions. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had no idea what to do or who to ask.

I’ve felt those things.

Young people’s imaginations are generally more powerful than adults’. What we haven’t felt ourselves, we can imagine, or we’ve read about.

About a year ago, I was having a seriously hard time when it came to understanding my own emotions. Part of adolescence, I guess. I was pretty sure I’d never felt like that before, that it was all new. But a while later I was going through my computer and found some old diary entries from 2008. Reading them I saw words on paper that summed up exactly what I was feeling. I knew that when I wrote them, I was imagining it. But three years later, those words were true.

I’d understood emotions before I’d even had them.

And it’s the same with situations and events we’ll never go through. We can compare to them to what we have experienced and we can imagine what they’re like for people in a dramatised version.

No, I haven’t lost my sister. But I lost first my grandfather and then, a year and a half later, my grandmother. I know grief.

No, I’ve never ‘fallen in love’, in the permanent sense of the word. But I’ve had feelings for people. I know what that feels like.

No, I’ve never gone through a divorce or a break-up, but I’ve lost friends and ‘more-than-friends’ to arguments about silly things, to fights I could’ve prevented if I’d been less selfish. I’ve blamed myself and blamed them. I know what that feels like.

No, I’ve never had an absolute identity crisis, but I’ve felt doubt. I’ve been uncertain and unsure with no one to ask.

I’ve never done magic but I’ve written books and played music. I’ve never been a soldier but I force myself through ballet training. I’ve never met a rebel fairy but I’ve been friends with the outcasts and the unpopular kids. I’ve never tried to commit suicide but I’ve persuaded others not to. I never used a knife, but even so I used to self harm. I’ve never been cast out, but I was bullied when I first came to my school.

In the end, the experiences I have had are more important for writing than the ones I haven’t had.

I can take what I know, and use it to imagine what I don’t.

*the title of this post is a reference to ‘Ballad’ by Maggie Stiefvater, in which Nuala says she wants to be a movie director – “All those lives played out, with music in the background. It’s like living a thousand lives without ever leaving yours.” This for me totally sums up any storytelling process.

18 thoughts on “A Thousand Lives Without Leaving Yours*

  1. Very well said! Emotion is a raw and amorphous thing – just because we haven’t felt the exact situation of our characters doesn’t mean we can’t liken our emotional experience to theirs. And hey, people are people, and we don’t all live in one-person boxes. We may not have been wizards and warriors and sentient dishwashers, but we have good instinctive grasp of personality and empathy as humans.

    And, if i dare say it, authors are often better than most at peoplewatching and empathy. And we’re also rather good at knowing how to strategically place and phrase things for maximum effect. Hence why we’re writers ;)

    1. It’s interesting, as most of the writers I’ve met are total introverts, but they’ll spend ages analysing and observing people. They’ll just not talk to them. And after they’ve observed them, they’ll go and shut themselves in a room on their own to recover.
      … or is that just me?
      I am most definitely a sentient dishwasher, my dear. You should know that by now.

      1. Ehehehe, I’m a pretty extroverted person most of the time – I like people, they’re fun to mess wiht and sometimes they like to mess back, which is even more fun. But some people suck. And those are the people i stay away from. And if anyone dares interrupt me during “me time”, they will be annihilated with a slipper.

        Oh yes, how could I forget! My apologies.

          1. I don’t have a social life. I talk to the peasants when I deign to, and spend the rest of the time avoiding the outside world as much as possible ;)

  2. Very well-put! I like your point of how we don’t need to have experienced everything our characters do – we’re not likely to; we don’t want to – all we need is to have experienced something like it. If a writer does think they need to experience everything, then it’s worrying because that shows they can’t imagine. Or that’s what I think, at least.

    I’m still only on Lament, so I didn’t know the quote at all. :P

    1. Haha, I’ve found some good quotes in Lament, so I guess you’re right!

      (Well, that was a silly thing to say… you usually are right about stuff. I read your posts and am like, “I WANT TO HAVE WRITTEN THIS; IT’S SO TRUE.”

  3. I found this through “Is Poetry For Old People?” (which I haven’t finished reading yet . . . I’m kind of ADD), but I LOOOOOOVED this! LOVED it! The bold lettering made everything so much more powerful, but you didn’t even need it for it to matter. This was beautifully written and I hope you keep up the good work. :)

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