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The Best Thing About Being a Writer


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Fiction-Therapy-WU-logo-2022.jpg?resize=This morning, while walking my dog, I was reminded of a snippet about writing that is simultaneously the best advice and yet also the worst. I cannot remember where I heard it or where is saw it (if you know, please put the source in the comments), but it is something that has stuck with me and often comes back to me. It goes like this (and I’m probably paraphrasing here):

The best thing about being a writer is never having to say, ‘You should’ve been there.’

It’s such a great piece of advice because it is something to which every writer could want to aspire to, to tell a story in such a way that the reader can feel like they were in that moment too. Surely, that’s what all writers want to achieve, to let their readers experience the story rather than just read a description of events.

It’s also a little like the advice to write every day. I mentioned this in my earlier article on writing advice, and yes, it would be great to write every day, but sometimes life has other plans. This advice above similarly sets a very high bar. It’s almost setting you up to fail before you even start.

Portrait of a landscape

I was reminded of this quote on my dog walk because I often take a picture of the same scene. Every time I go there, it’s different. Different colors, different sounds and smells. Every time, I try to capture that moment. Then I look at the picture and I always feel a sense of disappointment. It doesn’t matter how many shots I take, I can never get close to replicating the landscape as it is when I look at it.Obidos-Lagoon-2022.jpg?resize=525%2C394&

My first thought when I saw the photos this morning was that I wished I could paint. I think if I could paint, I could recreate the splendor as my eye saw it.

But clearly there is more to the moment that only the scenery. As I mentioned, there are the sounds and smells: the shrill whistle of the curlew, the woosh of wings as a squadron of cormorants swoop overhead; the slight sting of pine in the nose, the lung-clearing scent of eucalyptus. Then there’s the sensation of my feet crunching on that dirt road and the chill of the early morning autumn air on my face and hands. Plus the delight of seeing how much Dexter, my mongrel dog, seemed to enjoy being there.

And so I wondered if a truly great writer could capture the experience of such a scene. Could a writer portray the beauty of the landscape without resorting to an overly ornate description? Could any wordsmith accurately recount the sensations and emotions of the moment?

It’s already quite a feat to be able to fully appreciate such a moment without being preoccupied with the day ahead or with days gone by: reliving that argument, all the things you should have said, or what you’re planning to say at that meeting later today or even just wondering what you’re going to have for dinner tonight. All those things that you should, would or could have done.

Meditation and mindfulness training helped me to appreciate these moments, and there are many other methods to achieve the same thing. Some people get it from practices like yoga or tai chi. Others manage to find it through sport, painting or gardening. We each have to find our thing, whatever works for us, to get us in touch with our senses and emotions at any given time.

Ever closer

Capturing these experiences in writing is a different proposition, though, and one where we can all find ourselves feeling disappointed with our efforts. But I got closer than ever today with my photo of this scene after many previous attempts. Maybe this is the best one I’ll get, but maybe that perfect picture awaits – tomorrow, next week, or years from now.

No matter how good it is, I know it will never capture everything from that moment. And I know I will never be able to reproduce it in a painting – I don’t have the talent or training to do that. And maybe I’ll never be able to portray it words either – I learned long ago that my skills lie in helping writers rather than writing myself.

I was reminded of that lesson too this morning, that I’m fine with the fact that I might never be a great writer since I get more satisfaction from being an editor.

And maybe it helps some authors to think of this best/worst piece of advice, to aspire to be the kind of writer who never has to say, ‘You should have been there.’ But it’s important that you realize you might be setting yourself up for some disappointment if you don’t achieve that every time. As long as they realize that you can still be a successful writer (in whatever way you measure your success) without consistently achieving that particular pretty tall order.

As long as we’re kinder to ourselves when we look at that photo or the last pages of writing and feel that disappointment. We need to try to tune out that inner critic and remember that at least we’re trying and at least we’re having these experiences and thoughts and the kind of imagination we feel are worth sharing with others. The readers might not feel like they were there, but you can remind yourself that you were, and that’s something to be grateful for.

How do you recreate those special moments in your writing? How do you be kinder to yourself when you feel you don’t quite meet your own expectations?

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About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist.

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