The Education of a Writer

“The education of a scholar is greatly benefited by travelling in the pursuit of knowledge and to meet the authorities of his age.” – The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun

This is a second quote I found at the head of one of the chapters of, O Jerusalem by Laurie R. King. Ibn Khaldun had a lot of good advice for writers. Though all scholars are not writers, all writers have to be in one form or another, scholars. And as a scholar and a writer, not to mention as a Learner, I need with all my heart to keep learning so as not to stagnate.

After all, though I don’t need to go out and lead a cavalry charge to be able to write what I know, I do have to have some sort of basis of connecting with the events I write about to make those events and those characters believable. And since I don’t write stories about characters who sit in a cubicle all day long writing reports, that means getting out into the wide world and seeing what’s out there.

Travelling is a great way to see how the world works. While I would love to go to England and snap that picture of Dover Whitecliff in front of the White Cliffs of Dover, and spend weeks there researching everything I can get my wild and woolly paws on for my books, the reality is, I don’t have the funds to do so right now. But that doesn’t mean I can’t travel. Travel can be as simple as taking a drive somewhere you haven’t been before.

Sound simple? You’d be surprised. Many of the people I’ve talked to, just like people in medieval times, haven’t been farther than fifty or sixty miles from their own front doorstep. So just pick a road out of town and drive it. See what’s on the other end of it. Get out of the car, smell the smells, touch the grass, and breathe air that’s not your normal air. Take a notebook and a pen with you, plop down on a bench (or on the grass…but watch out for cow patties) and write.

I’ve found the coolest spots this way… little town called Corning about 2 hours up I-5 from here has the best olives and hazelnut milkshakes ever. The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz spawned a whole series of stories for me. Vegas…oh Vegas…not for gambling, but just for all the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and lights. And then they’re Galt. Great town for writing, Galt. Hole up in a motel and just write with no distractions until dinner at Wholey Ravioli followed by a drive out into the fields to see hordes of little ninja bunnies. There had to be hundreds of them out in the twilight. Never seen anything like it!

And’s it’s not just the physical aspects of a new place that can trigger creativity. It’s also how you feel about the travelling itself. I was a pretty by-myself kid until I met my friend Kelly in seventh grade. There were only two other kids living in our cul-de-sac, both much younger than me and not the nerdy type. My ‘go out and meet people’ skills were confined to going to office parties with dad (“You will say Sir or Ma’am when people talk to you, and smile, and shake hands firmly. You will mind your p’s and q’s”) and to searching the phone book, and then calling restaurants and theaters for reservations ‘so you can learn to speak properly on the telephone’.

I was always terrified of being abandoned or left behind when mom and dad would drop me off somewhere for a test or a swim meet and the car would disappear. Then, when I about six or seven, I somehow figured out that I lived on an island and what that actually meant. I taught myself that I didn’t have to worry because even if I got left behind, all I had to do was not cry, pull up my big girl pants, and walk until I found the ocean. Then I could follow the beach around until I found Kailua Beach Park, and walk home from there. Simplistic I know, but it stopped a lot of anxiety just repeating that to myself.

That’s why going to the mainland and up to Canada as a twelve year old, and my experience as an exchange student in Wiesbaden are also great examples of my ‘travelling in pursuit of knowledge’. Not for the sights and sounds from those trips, which will always provide the most wonderful memories, but rather for how I felt. For both of those journeys, I was away from my family for the first time (in different ways).

In Canada, I was with older cousins that I normally didn’t spend time with, and it was the first time I’d left the islands without my parents. Instinctively, I knew that on the mainland, it didn’t matter if I found a beach if I got left behind. Not like I could swim 3,000 miles home. I spent the first three days terrified that the tour bus would leave while I was still in the bathroom at the rest stop.

And in Germany, I was completely by myself. The other students from Hawaii were a bit more interested in being with their exchange partners, going horseback riding and skateboarding, and in doing normal teenager things than in going to see museums or castles or practicing the language (I swore to myself I would not speak English while I was there).

But in both cases, after the first couple of days of fear and homesickness, I found my courage. So what if you get left? I told myself. So what if you’re by yourself? Who cares? This is a once in a lifetime thing. Don’t waste it by whining in the corner. Grab it with both hands and squeeze it for everything it’s got.

I bought maps and worked my way around alone and asked questions and got lost and found myself again. I sat alone under a willow tree in the park writing stories in the places I had just seen. I fumbled with a foreign language, even to the point of asking for a dog in heat instead of a hot dog. I explored, and I learned. And that’s what makes it into my writing from those travels. Facing fear and pushing through it to find something absolutely liberating and marvelous. To know you have the brains to think things through and take care of yourself, and that you can make your own adventures without having to depend on anyone else to rescue you.

Ibn Khaldun also speaks of ‘meeting the authorities of his age’. Another great bit of advice. Someone at work once told me that I would learn something from every supervisor I had…I would either learn how to be a good supervisor or how not to be a good supervisor. (Fortunately, I realized I would be better off as an analyst than trying to be a supervisor at all, and have been much happier since). The same is true for any and every profession, including writing. You learn from every writer you read and every writer you meet and talk to.

As much as Facebook and Twitter are a time magnet, they are amazing for one thing. Before the internet (yes, there was a before the internet, and dagnabbit, I walked to school every day barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways, ya little whippersnappers…), especially in the middle of the Pacific, meeting one of your favorite authors or even communicating with them was near impossible. Oh, you could write to the publisher and maybe you’d get a post card back. Maybe. But now, most authors have fan pages, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. And they’re really nice people. They will actually answer questions.

The first time I posed a question to an author on Facebook, I almost fainted when I got an answer back. A real answer, not just a ‘thanks for liking my book’ auto reply, which was what I had been expecting. Unlike in Ibn Khaldun’s time, you don’t have to ride a camel or walk hundred miles to a center of learning. You can meet the authorities of your age and of your profession in cyberspace. And it’s a beautiful thing.

But not the only thing. Go out to conventions and book signings and ask questions. Don’t just sit in the back and nod. There are probably ten other people in the room with the same question that are afraid to ask it. Help them out by asking it yourself. Almost every author I’ve met has been gracious, generous, and more than willing to pay it forward to the next set of writers.

If you really want to meet the authorities of your age, and you write in the steampunk genre, you can do no better than the Clockwork Alchemy convention in San Jose, California over Memorial Day weekend. The authors of the Bay Area put on the best and most intense set of writing workshops ever. Seriously. I spent nearly three eight hour days with the most awesome authors learning everything from how to get an idea, to plot, character, marketing, editing, how to write a fight scene, you name it, they did it. My hand ached at the end of every day from taking so many notes, but it was absolutely worth it, because I learned more than I could have imagined, and I met some very knowledgeable people who are now wonderful friends.

So here’s your homework. This week, go somewhere you’ve never been, even if it’s just an unvisited street in your city, and write about it. See if you can find a Facebook Page or Twitter account for one of your favorite authors. Ask them a relevant writing question. And your education as a writer will be well-benefited.

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