Why Successful Writers Don’t Spend All Their Time Behind a Screen

Writing is about more than actually writing.

I was 15 years old. I was sitting in the library, writing in a notebook, while the rest of my classmates were outside working on a project for our creative writing class.

Why was I inside, by myself, writing instead of working on a project? Because it was a creative writing class, not a “go outside and do things with other people” class! I wanted to write, and so that’s what I was determined to do.

My creative writing teacher wasn’t having any of my silent rebellion, of course. He tracked me down, took away my notebook, and told me to go outside.


When I asked him what was wrong with sitting alone with a notebook in the library by myself, he gave me a look and then said in an uncharacteristically serious tone, “If you want to be a writer, you have to go out into the world and experience real life.”

That was over 10 years ago, and I still think about it almost every day. Because it completely changed the way I looked at writing, and what it meant to be a writer.

Writers write. It is literally the only prerequisite for being able to call yourself a writer. In this profession — or hobby, or whatever you prefer to call it — you are going to be spending a lot of time behind a screen telling stories basically to yourself. That’s not going to change, and you shouldn’t sacrifice valuable writing time ALL the time for other things.

But you do need to take breaks, venture out into the world, and give your brain the space and the stimulation it needs to draw more ideas in.

My sophomore year of high school, I didn’t get out much. I had no interest in doing so. I wanted to sit alone in my room and write books. I thought that was all it was going to take to make my dreams come true.

Fast forward to this past weekend 12 years later. I’m in Chicago walking around a giant convention center all based around a weird space opera some guy named George Lucas wrote in the 1970s. I sit in on a panel and hear Jon Favreau say he wrote four episodes of a TV series before even proposing it to higher-ups because he couldn’t stop the story — he was so in love with it he just HAD to write it — and I’m thinking, “I want to love my stories so much that I keep writing them even if no one ever buys them, because maybe someone will someday.”

And even though I could go on and on about Star Wars Celebration for 50 blog posts at this point, I bring it up to show you that meeting people, and listening to real discussions, and HAVING real discussions, and being away from your work for an extended period of time while having those experiences makes all the difference.

Writing gets better when you have real-world experiences to draw from. Not the ones you see secondhand that other people are telling you about or acting out on a screen, but real firsthand sights and sounds and events you will never forget. THOSE are the experiences that truly matter.

Now, I’m not saying you have to go to a 5-day nerd party with 80,000 other people to have the kind of experiences that are good for harnessing creative energy. In fact, most people probably won’t ever do that. That’s fine. For you personally, “real-world experience” can pretty much mean anything, even if you don’t stray far from home.

Sometimes, just walking out your front door and breathing in the outside air is all it takes. Or even just sitting by the window without going outside and just letting your mind wander. Anything that takes you away from your screen, away from your work, and allows your mind to focus on … well, nothing!

Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have someone always looking out for us, someone who will track us down, drag us away from our creative comfort zones, and force us to go outside and live in the real world. It’s something we have to train ourselves to do on our own. We have to diverge from our normal routines and the preferences that keep us comfortable and experience new things. It’s like studying new material we can later come back and write about.

I don’t remember what that project was or what we did when we were outside that day. But I do know that every time I step away from my writing and come back having spent time in reality, I am so much more motivated and inspired to create than when I’ve been sitting in the same chair day after day doing the same old things.

You never know what you’re going to find out there. Just take a deep breath, save the writing for later, lift up your head, and open your eyes. See it all. Feel it all. Live.

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.

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