Well, that’s a jarring headline. But I’m not going to apologize for the way my brain works. Bear with me for just a little while, and I swear you won’t be disappointed.
There are a lot of metaphors and similes used to make an attempt to explain to non-writers what writing is actually like. I’ve been comparing writing a book to raising a child for years, despite the fact that I have been single for the majority of those years and do not have a child and don’t know firsthand if the two experiences are even fairly comparable.
My favorite Harry Potter “revelation” (and I don’t mean the kinds of insignificant revelations J.K. Rowling reveals after having already finished the series) has to do with Horcruxes — sort of. If you’ve never read the books, a Horcrux is formed when someone “splits” their soul and puts a piece of it into an object, like a journal or a locket or, oh I don’t know, another person.
Voldemort (the Big Bad of the Harry Potter universe) is known for doing the unthinkable: splitting his soul into not two, but seven separate pieces.
Someone on Tumblr (or maybe it was Twitter, or Reddit, or Facebook, does it really matter?) once pointed out that J.K. Rowling technically also split her soul into seven pieces since the series contains seven books and a writer leaves a piece of themselves in everything they compose. And I wasn’t the only one who flipped out over that observation.
Because that’s kind of a hugely accurate way to put it. We’re not just putting time and energy and sweat and tears into the books (or other things) we write. We’re also pouring out our experiences and emotions and beliefs, completely unable to stop ourselves from leaving parts of us behind in those pages.
That’s a cool thing to think about. Every time you write something, you’re putting a little more of yourself out into the world. That’s warm fuzzies level awesome.
But have you ever thought about what that would technically mean when you picked up a book someone else had written and read it from cover to cover?
If every writer leaves behind a piece of their soul in the things they write, for example, and you come along and consume them, are you also — in a very twisted but maybe kind of not so terrible way — absorbing those pieces of other writers’ souls?
And when you sit down and begin writing your own stories, do pieces of you — and pieces you have picked up as you’ve read — get left behind in your book, only to be passed on, allowing the cycle to repeat endlessly for the rest of time?
I’m a huge advocate for real-world personal experience over secondhand exposure — meaning I think it’s much more beneficial to go climb a mountain rather than reading a story about someone climbing a mountain if you’re going to write about mountain climbing.
But reading can, and should, also be part of how we learn about the world and the people in it. It’s very likely you’re never going to climb Mt. Everest (I mean, I’m not trying to crush your dreams here, but let’s just assume for a second that it’s not going to happen). That doesn’t mean you can’t learn about what the experience would be like by reading someone else’s written account of it.
The best stories are the ones that leave us changed, or contemplating change. And those stories are, more often than not, written from some form of personal experience. At the very least, an author was deeply impacted by something that happened in the real world and decided to write a story about it.
They were affected by something they heard or saw or witnessed someone go through, and it influenced them to retell a version of those events. They can’t accomplish that retelling without conveying how it made them feel, and that’s how this begins — leaving a piece of yourself behind in the characters and plot points and messages other people may one day “adopt” from reading what you’ve written.
Maybe this is truly why we read. So that as we grow and mature and move throughout the world, we can take and leave behind pieces of humanity. This is, after all, why we do what we do. We convey what it means to be a person by telling stories about people. And we understand what it means to be a person by reading stories about people.
Read more books. Write more books. Don’t just open yourself up to the world. Leave behind lessons and discoveries for others to find and pass along. If you can’t think of any other way to leave some kind of mark on the world, this might be it. This might be the way it happens.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.