Writing about the brilliant novel “Matterhorn” a few days ago put me in mind of another book on war, this one nonfiction, “The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins. I read it last year, I think in spring, but some of the visions he evoked stay with me still. He presents scenes from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a series of images, almost like photographs in words. I remember vignettes of him accompanying a night patrol through a pitch-black city full of snipers, and meeting Iraqi soldiers while jogging in war-ravaged Baghdad, and witnessing an execution in Afghanistan – and being impressed with the courage of the man. Nobody works that kind of a job for money. He is on a mission; I say “is” because evidently he’s still out there in harm’s way. His book is a life-changer, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in what war is really like.
But I didn’t sit down to write a book review. Another piece of writing that prompted this post was a recent guest blog by Elizabeth Bear on the Clarion website. She wrote about the necessity of a writer getting up off the chair and going outside once in a while, to get some fresh air and exercise and observe people, that is, see what life is all about. She pointed out that writers cannot always live only in their heads.
I went through this dilemma when I was a young writer just starting out. I wanted to sit down and compose masterpieces out of the random stuff that had accumulated in my brain. But it doesn’t work like that, at least for me. Maybe others can do that, but I couldn’t – and can’t. I had to take off and get out there on the road among people to figure out that I had something worth sharing. There’s enough bullshit in the world, and I couldn’t see myself adding to the supply. Sure, as fiction writers we “make stuff up” – but where does that store of made-up stuff come from? If it doesn’t come from personal experience – and by this I don’t mean if you write about alien worlds you have to have visited them – I mean to say, if it doesn’t come from the gut and the heart every time, then it isn’t worth telling. And to have that heart you have to spend some time out there in the real world. Yeah, I know, the thought of it terrified me too when I first contemplated it.
But concerning the memoir of my journeys in the mid-70s I am currently finishing up for publication, there’s not an ice cube’s chance in hell I could have written about hitchhiking broke across Europe, the Mid-East, and India without having done it myself. Getting out on the road and exposing myself to an infinitude of possibilities, and yes, even dangers, was necessary in my case to find my voice as a writer, to break open that fountain within. Otherwise I would have stagnated, decayed, and died – at least as an artist.
Some things, of course, we cannot do in person; we have to make them up as we go. We cannot enter a dragon’s keep, or travel to far Centauri, or enter past historical eras to do authentic research. But we can get out and live and discover what it is to be human, to laugh and cry and play and love and all the things that people do, and then we can put that in any milieu in which we choose to write. We should never hide ourselves away in closed rooms, except temporarily, to write it all down.
Now I know what some of you writers might say: it is a writer’s job to hide away and write. Yes, of course. But it is also the job of a writer of integrity, even if he or she makes things up, to write the truth. It’s a calling and a mission, not just an occupation.
And sometimes to get it right you just have to get out there.