Writing is parasitical because it feeds off a host. It needs to have content. It either tells a story or addresses a topic. Sure, there are the modernist and avant-garde poets like Gertrude Stein who explore language for its sound and texture rather than its meaning. Or lyric prose writers like Elizabeth Smart, who insisted that “the love affair was with the language” when she wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
But most of us write about something. Even fiction writers, who make stuff up, need material. This makes me a bit sad, as though writing isn’t a stand-alone passion, like music, or dance. I’ve always envied musicians the ability to lose themselves in sound. As for dance, I do it partly because it’s an end in itself. Audiences may look for narrative, but it’s not always there, and in forms of dance that aren’t performance oriented (like 5 Rhythms), even less so.
So what does this mean for fiction writers? Most of us “write what we know.” But what happens after we’ve cannibalized our own lives?
We go in search of new topics. Take surfing. It’s something I know next to nothing about. But it fascinates me, partly because I live on the coast and am awed by the ocean every day. Partly because it’s one of those activities that grabs people by the hair and turns them into devotees. It’s an end in itself. Yes, it’s about riding waves of energy and being in the moment. For Canadian surfers, it’s also about wetsuits, cold weather, and surfer’s ear. (Afterwards, it might even be about peeling off the wetsuit and warming up beside a wood stove made from a propane tank in the back of a camper van.) But it’s not about anything outside itself the way writing is. Surfers surf. Period.
On the one hand, I have surf envy. On the other hand, I’m lucky because as a writer I have an excuse to research anything that interests me. A reason to ask strangers probing questions about what matters to them the most. An obligation to constantly expand my life to meet the demands of my work.
Surf lessons? Sign me up.