Why Writers Need to Leave the Desk

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Plenty of tips abound throughout the glorious internet on how to write the best of the best. The articles helping you get rid of commas, adverbs, and wordiness. Most of these tips, and rightfully so, are meant to be used as you type away on your laptop—at your desk.

No one denies the necessity of just sitting down, giving time to your writing, and embracing the struggle of actually putting words on paper. But what happens when you get yourself in the chair . . . and your writing remains dry as stale bread? Is this writer’s block?

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s exceptional book on writing, she redefines writer’s block. Instead of writer’s block stopping up something that’s already there, she calls it a sign that you are empty of inspiration. You might (read: definitely) need to fill yourself up with new experiences. You need to constantly explore life to bring real breath to your novel, poem, memoir, or anything else containing your words.

Contrary to popular belief, most writers are not lonely hermits whose only friends are a bottle of Bourbon and a clunking typewriter. Many favorites, including Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and Barbara Kingsolver quite literally got their hands dirty by getting out and living a little.

It makes sense. No matter what you write, all good works have a breath of life, containing people and places that should feel real and tangible to readers. If you don’t know how your characters laugh, shake hands, dance, or cross the street, how can you convince your readers to believe they exist? When writing about a gardener, you should put your own hands in the dirt.

To put it simply, you should live away from your writing desk as much as possible.

All writers need breaks from staring at white pages, and you might be tempted to spend that much-needed away time with that book you’ve been meaning to read.

Stop.

Don’t even pick it up.

You must read well to write well, but Steinbeck and Dickens cannot get you there all on their own. Writers have to know how real people talk, how real people react, and what goes on in the world beyond their desk.

To speak any language well, learners must actually speak it. When learning French, you might start out at your kitchen table, surrounded by verbs and scribblings of phonetic pronunciations. But no matter how much you practice ordering a crêpe in the mirror, you still need to do it for real. You could speak French without ever encountering another French-speaker, but something would be missing, and your words would be a little more broken.

But what about the things you want to write about but cannot experience? Did C.S. Lewis converse with lions before writing Narnia? Did George R. R. Martin witness a Dragon Queen strutting down the main street of his hometown? While we never want to deny the existence of magic, it’s pretty safe to say that these ideas came straight from the imagination.

Balance is key. Your imagination is a great place to draw from, to be sure, but Martin needed to see wings flap to describe his dragons, and Lewis needed to see the lamppost before creating Narnia.

So what are you waiting for? Never let yourself feel chained to that desk. Get out, live a little, but once you’ve been filled with a whole boatload of life experience, always remember to come back and bring it to the page.