Drinking From the Well


Raymond M. Coulombe

One of the first things a writing teacher will tell their students is: write what you know. Okay, that makes sense. I mean, how can you write what you don’t know? That actually happens all the time. Even Steven King has done it. I remember reading a short story of his that had a scene where the main character was fly fishing. Mr. King didn’t know enough about fly fishing to satisfy those who really knew the sport. Of course, the displeasure of a handful of fly fishermen isn’t going to ruin his career. It did ruin the story for my fly fishing friend, and you don’t want to do that sort of thing too often.

College writing professors like to assume that college-age “kids” haven’t experienced enough to have much to write about. Maybe they don’t, having grown up in a very sheltered environment with helicopter parents. Then again, maybe they are back in school after doing a tour of duty with the Marines in some god-forsaken hell hole. It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

If you had the misfortune to never have misfortune you can always put some experiences under your belt. Climb a mountain, canoe a fast river, fall in love, travel somewhere outside the tourist areas. Learn to fence. Make friends. Shoot guns. Do stuff. Heck, learn to fly fish. Also, do your research. A quick review of a fly fishing book would have served Mr. King well. These days we have all kinds of helpful videos that can fill in our knowledge gaps. Having the Internet at our finger tips is a huge resource. Before that writers would often disappear into libraries for days at a time. That’s not a bad idea either, as there’s nothing like being surrounded by books to inspire a writer. While nice, it’s no longer necessary.

Those resources are great, but nothing beats your own experiences. That’s your well of inspiration. It’s right there for you to draw upon and share with the world. It can also hurt like hell, as it’s personal. My college writing professor always encouraged me to draw upon my 17 years of experience as a professional Firefighter. I did, some, but rarely too directly. I’d left my career by way of an ambulance ride and had some stuff that hadn’t been dealt with all that well. Nearly dying can give a person a few issues. Still, those experiences are mine and I own them.

I try not to draw too heavily from that well. When I do my dreams get weird and I understand why so many writers are alcoholics. I’ve already beaten the odds by having a solid marriage, and my kids grew up to be functional and wonderful adults. Even if I don’t often directly pull from my experiences, they made me what I am. The best thing a writer can do is present the world with what makes them unique.

Sure beats the heck out of everyone rewriting everyone else’s books.

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