Life is the Writer’s Research


Popular writer John Grisham says that before you can be a writer you have to have done some other things, experienced heart break, joy and seen the world. However, above all you ‘need to have something to say’.

To paraphrase his words, with which I agree, he says you need to have seen life in the raw and felt the things you expect your characters to feel before you try writing about them. Otherwise, how can you convincingly go to the heart of grief or joy and describe those states if your character is in their thrall? Imagination is essential for a good story, but so is emotion. Unless these are prodded into life by our own experiences or observations, our writing will lack a convincing energy that gets us alongside the reader.

I heard a quote by Goethe many years ago that I have carried with me since.

“Talent develops in quiet places and character in the full current of life.” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

This particular quote influenced me enormously and for many year, whenever things seemed to be going wrong, I would remind myself of it. Grisham was really repeating Goethe’s view. That knowledge and insight has inspired me at turning points in my life, especially during times when I felt despondent about ever being good enough for readers to take me seriously as a writer. I would tell myself I was serving the apprenticeship while gathering a repertoire of stories on which I would call when I had done enough hours to write well. I have also always known I would never graduate from the apprenticeship.

Insights from other authors underpinned this knowledge. For example, Ernest Hemmingway confessed to an interviewer that he wrote the last page of a Farewell to Arms, thirty-nine (yes, 39) times. That definitely makes me feel better about the twenty plus re-writes and re-crafts of Bend with the Wind.

This is not to mention all the previous manuscripts, which I thought were marvellous at the time and which I now regard with a shiver of horror. Those efforts will never see daylight. May they burn on my funeral pyre.

After confessing that he wrote the last page of a Farewell to Arms thirty nine times, the interviewer asked Hemmingway if there was a technical problem. He replied, ‘yes, getting the words right’.

I love the irony of that. Here was a man who was a master at his craft, yet he also struggled over every word and made sure that he fashioned each sentence according to his definition of excellence. I say ’his definition of excellence’ because, for each writer, excellence means different things. However, I do know that until a sentence reads well, it is impossible to rest with an ‘it’s good enough’ approach and move on.

That is why I am thankful I have had several people go over the latest version of Bend with the Wind before I re-submit it to the publisher. The process has definitely been demanding and I fully believe I have now earned my stripes as a writer.

But there is no questioning the satisfaction that comes from having worked at something until the blood ran from my fingers and my brain felt raw and scraped clean of ideas and then to have someone say….that captured the essence of the human experience and gave new insights. That is surely the most satisfying and fulfilling moment of all.

In Anne Lamott’s very successful book on writing, Bird by Bird, she says, “One of the gifts of being a writer is thatt igives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closle yat life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”



Anne Lamott