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5 Things Writing Taught Me About Living and Living Taught Me About Writing

Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Here I ask writers what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft. It's been a long hiatus but I'm happy to post a column from an author I met at the LA Times Festival of Books, and later at the IndieReader Awards: Ivan Obolensky, author of the award winning gothic drama mystery "Eye of the Moon".

Today, Ivan's taking the usual "5 Things" formula and giving it a twist, as per the title of this blog. Check out his 5 lessons below, and more info about his fascinating life story and his books here.

Lesson #1: Experience matters.

I once read a book by a writer I knew personally. It wasn’t a bad book. It just wasn’t a good one. The writing was elegant, but the story was not of the same caliber.

My conclusion was that the author wrote it when he was too young. Some themes are best tackled later in life. With age, one has hopefully lived long enough to have experienced real drama. What it is, and what it isn’t.

Imagination is absolutely required to tell a great story, but real life is the bedrock on which a story is built, and that can only come from wrestling with the issues that we humans universally experience. A great deal of reading informs the writer how to tell a story, but only by living can a writer develop the realistic content that makes a story come alive.

Lesson #2: Our greatest faults can be our greatest gifts.

I will always love Isabel Allende. I was at a book signing of hers in Beverly Hills where she gave a talk. She recounted how she started writing fiction. Originally she was a journalist and was given the opportunity to interview Pablo Neruda, a famous Chilean poet. He read the interview when she had finished it and commented that she should be a writer of fiction -- never a journalist. She had either misheard, misinterpreted, or simply made up half the interview.

Initially, she was crushed, but came to realize that the man had given her a great gift. By writing fiction and making up stories, she could lie to her heart’s content, and so she did.

For me, the anecdote was a kind of epiphany. I was always prone to exaggeration, elaboration, and just plain lying from an early age. In truth, I could lie like a rug, and the inclination got me into a great deal of trouble, but with her story, I had an answer. I could do the same, and so I decided to write fiction and have never been happier.

Some years later I wrote to thank her for the extraordinary impact she had on a nameless member of the audience that night. She answered promptly, and here is an excerpt of her reply:

“The anecdote with Neruda is true. I didn't follow his advice until much later but I keep it in mind. Fiction's raw material is always some deep truth that we have license to tell as a bunch of lies.”

Lesson #3: There is magic in the world.

I was awed when I was a teenager writing poetry. The poem would change the more I worked it, forming into something other than my own. It was deeper, smarter, more precise. The results never ceased to surprise me. Did I write that? How is that possible?

As I wrote my first novel, I painted myself into horrific corners, but inspiration continued to touch me. The process was terrifying because I had no idea where the story was going, and I would stress over not knowing. Eye of the Moon was completed on the faith that inspiration, that divine presence, would always be close at hand and lead me through the labyrinths of my own creation.

If our minds can imagine infinite possibilities, then the world we live in contains an infinite number of infinite possibilities. What’s going on out there? We don’t know. This to me is where the magic happens. Anything is possible. Anything at all. The longer I live, and the more I write, the greater my certainty that there is a magic in the world. All we have to do is look around and gather it in.

Lesson #4: Be curious always.

If one wants to experience the slow death of inspiration, and the blandness of a stupefying and mundane existence, stop being curious. Cease wondering why? Writing nonfiction requires research that has taken me into areas of knowledge I never knew existed. It has put me in contact with others who think differently than I do. Their thoughts are often surprising and have helped me to see life in unique ways.

We live in an amazing world. Exploring it is a gift that writing helps me accomplish while shaping what I write about. It is that endless wonder that I try and pass on to the reader.

Lesson #5: It often has to get worse before it gets better, but that’s okay.

Live long enough, and you’ll see the pattern: You’ve figured something out. You do great. Things are running like a Swiss watch. There’s a stumble. Then there’s a fall. You hope things will improve. In short order you’re falling off a cliff. Splat. You lay there stunned. It’s really bad, but everything looks up from where you are. You rise. You put one foot in front of the other. Things start getting better. There’s hope. You’ve made it through. You’ve figured something out. Whenever the future looks black, I figure it will likely get worse before it gets better, but that’s acceptable. I’ve learned that if I keep going, a wonderful change will take place, and when I’m there, I will look back and know that I am in that good place because of all that has come before. It is my endless story as a writer and as a person. It is the universal story.

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