"Go off and get a job and see the world and travel if you can; anything that widens your experience. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But I did lots of other jobs to pay my way, to pay the rent. I don't wish it had been any other way," wrote British author Maggie O'Farrell.
Long before reading these words the other day I knew that in order to be the kind of writer I envisioned I had to first go out and live, I had to work and I had to see what it is like to live paycheck-to-paycheck, and how it feels to have to get up early in the morning in order to earn a modest living with my back. I also knew that part of this had to include seeing new and different places and meeting as wide a variety of people as I could. In many ways what she is saying and what I lived is the realest expression of leaving one's comfort zone.
You simply cannot be an interesting person, and by definition and interesting writer, unless you have seen a lot and done a lot. I should also stress that this does not include spending a vew months abroad (as an aside, while driving with my brother and mom after I had told her I wanted to leave college after my first semester, she said, "You should do something interesting at least. I spent a year abroad. My brother answered for me by saying, "Yeah, and you still are."). The point is not to find some other thing to do that places you above the fray, beyond the reach of what it means to actually live life (as another aside, this is probably the greatest disapointment I found in "Eat, Pray, Love" (beyond the writing) was that she is such a self absorbed, pretentious, and over-priviledged person that she believed her trips gave insight into life. Nope. All it did was provide insight into what it means to be self absorbed, over-priviledged and pretentious. She did not humble herself and so she did not learn the truest lesson, which is humility).
Some would say that I am immersing myself in these experiences as a means to write about the average and everyday person, to bring their life into focus. I would answer that they are only partially right. Yes, we need to see how real people react to certain situations and see the many ways that people think, act, live, make love, fall in love, feel pain, take risks, dream, and so on in order to create characters that feel real. But we also have to see and live and learn and become these things so that we know how to be a diversion for people from the norm. It is not enough to accurately mimic the lonely life of a middle aged man, for example. You have to understand how to create a character that is real, and then place that character where he least wants to be, where he is most uncomfortable and outside of his comfort zone in order to create an interesting story. The only way to understand what that is and how to do it so that it is interesting and believable is to have been out in the world without a net, so to speak, living as best you can by simply working. This is how you can know who these people are--you are one of them--and how they feel.
Even if you are writing fiction that has little to do with realism, you still need to understand how people think, what their motivations are and on and on in order to be able to reach beyond yourself. Think of every writer that you know who is truly talented--and I mean as good a story teller as writer--and you will see someone who has led an interesting life, who has left their comfort zone (not always by choice) and learned from it.
As I consider all of the above, I find myself also coming back to the value of an MFA. There is a value to it in that it will help you make connections, be able to teach, and gain a little more currency in your queries and submissions, but when it comes to making you a better writer; I am not sure if it ultimately will or not. The writers who I admire don't seem to have been pumped out of MFA programs. There is also this self feeding cycle that I don't think is good for writing either. If so many of the editors that select the writing to publish come from MFAs and have few life experiences, then aren't we being limited by their dimmed vision? George Plimpton, for example, wasn't an interesting person and successful founder and editor of a literary review because he was well educated, it was because he went out and was willing to place himself in new and different situations in order to better understand what it means to be X or Y. Did he succeed despite his advanced education? Did Steinbeck create some fo the most poweful and important writing (see the intor to Cannery Row for example or the end to The Grapes of Wrath) because he was highly educated and had an MFA? Hell no. He did so well because he knew what it was like to be Tom Joad or Doc or Mack and the rest of his characters.
Causes James Buchanan Supports
Expanding health care in the US, ending war as a viable tool of foreign policy, and issues related to social justice in general.