Living to Write

by Karissa Zastrow

I think the best advice I was given about writing had little to do with the technique of writing at all. As a creative writing student, I was given a lot of advice on how to write, such as kill your darlings, put every word on trial, and show, don’t tell. All of those recommendations are important, but looking back, the best piece of advice I received had nothing to do with how I was writing. On the last day of my fiction writing workshop class, our professor told us in order to become better writers, all we had to do was get out there and live.

At the time, I thought I was living. After all, I was going to class, working, doing homework with coffee, and drinking every night, sacrificing sleep because you never know what could happen. Yes, those were fun and exciting times, and I always had plenty to write about, but you can’t live like that forever.

Four months later, I found myself in my first full-time job, where I let my life be ruled by work, unable to figure out how to find a decent work/life balance. I saved the weekends for trying to keep up with my old lifestyle, but even then, it wasn’t the same. I thought that once I graduated, I would have all this time to write and then be well on my way to having something that was publishable. I fell into an endless routine and slowly, my creativity dwindled and writing was put on the back burner. Many times, I would sit down to write, but my words would run dry a sentence or two into typing. Feeling stuck and uninspired, I was ready to give up on writing completely. 

That’s when I needed a change. I quit my job and traveled to Europe, which I had been dreaming of for years. The second day into my journey, my brain started swirling with ideas for poems, short stories, and the need to document my adventures. Whenever we weren’t out exploring, I was writing—on the train rides, buses, planes, hanging out in parks, before bed, and after I woke up. I was bursting with creativity and for the first time in a long while, I felt alive. After coming back, that creative energy carried over and I worked four very different part time jobs to make ends meet. I didn’t have much time, but there was no shortage of ideas when I started to write. 

About six months ago, I took a full time job and I found myself falling back into a routine. My life wasn’t exciting and when I started to write, I couldn’t find the words. I was back in a slump, and I didn’t know how to change it. But, in February, I attended the Winter Writers Retreat at The Oxbow, and set aside that whole weekend for myself and my writing. The day of the retreat, I produced a piece of nonfiction and was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out. I started setting aside time to write a little more. Three weeks later, I traveled to the east coast to interview at a graduate school where I had been accepted for creative writing. While wandering the streets of Pittsburgh, ideas started popping into my head and between the interview and the informational meetings, I made myself comfortable on the campus terrace and wrote until I didn’t have anything left to say.

In the last few weeks, I have found more to write about than I have in the last three years. All of these different experiences, made me realize that a change of scenery, meeting new people, and trying new things inspires me to write and develop new ideas for all sorts projects. Since February, I’ve been seeking out new experiences locally, and so far, I have watched a soccer game in a snowstorm, pet stingrays in Iowa, visited Minneapolis, and made a trip down to Platteville. All these experiences have somewhat pushed me out of my comfort zone and given me a lot of inspiration for pieces that I wouldn’t have created if I had just stayed at home. Getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself has not only taught me a lot about myself, but also about my writing and creativity.

It’s been almost four years since I sat in my fiction workshop and was told to go out and live, and I’m finally starting to figure out what my professor meant. Living is a way to figure out what inspires you as a writer and what gives you material for your work. As I mentioned earlier, through living, I learned what fuels my writing. Every writer is different and what feeds their creativity is different as well. Some writers are able to keep the routine of everyday life and are inspired by the beautiful, little things they find each day. Plus, if we don’t live, how are we going to be able to describe our experiences to our readers? So, my fellow writers, let’s get out there and live! I can’t wait to hear all of your stories.