I originally became interested in writing as a means of self expression. I was 16 years old and tremendously unhappy. I got good grades, but my achievements didn’t bring me any deep satisfaction. I felt that I was being prepared for something—most likely college and then a career—that I wanted no part of, and I didn’t see much in my future to look forward to. I began to write about my life and my unhappiness, and it got to the point where writing about myself was the main thing that made me feel my life was worthwhile. Acknowledging my misery somehow began to seem like the most meaningful thing I could do.
Despite my lack of interest, I did eventually go to college, where I majored in English with a Creative Writing emphasis. One of the most common bits of advice, hammered into my head by teacher after teacher, was this: “write what you know.” And so I did, I wrote dozens of stories featuring a protagonist living in the city I lived in, dealing with the things I dealt with, thinking my thoughts and feeling my feelings. I wrote dozens of stories, and published quite a few, but I was still miserable, and I still didn’t see much to look forward to.
And then, finally, I stopped following that advice. I thought of the books I loved when I was younger, before I’d ever started feeling miserable about things in the first place. Books that took place in worlds that were very different than my own. Books that inflamed my imagination, and jerked me out of my own miserable life, into lives of magic and adventure.
And so I became excited by the idea of using writing not to explore the familiar, not to explain what I knew, but instead to move beyond myself and my own miseries. I started trying to write what I didn’t, and couldn’t possibly, know.
Reading gives us a chance to get to know other lives intimately, and that offers us an opportunity to gain emotional knowledge that excels beyond the limits of our own personal experiences—even if the lives we are reading about are fictional. Writing can offer the same sort of self-transcendence.
By writing fiction, which by its very definition involves a predisposition for the imagined rather than the personally known, I am encouraged to explore experiences that are not my own. Writing fiction leads me toward moving beyond my own knowledge and feelings. It demands that I sympathize with characters who have very little in common with me. It motivates me to try to see the world through different eyes.
And that, I believe, makes me a better person. At the very least, it gives me something worth looking forward to.