Thursday, September 29, 2011

Take three hammers

This was going to be a completely different post, but as I went searching for the original quote, I stumbled across this one:

“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”
William Faulkner

If I could borrow Stephen King's toolbox analogy (for those of you going "huh?!" go read On Writing), I'd say experience, observation and imagination make up three hammers in our tool kit. Why hammers?

Well... I'm a firm believer in the following: If the thing you're fixing isn't working, get a bigger hammer. 

On the other hand, I also believe that a hammer's a hammer. If I keep knocking away, I will achieve what I want, regardless of the hammer I used.

It's sort of like that when we write.

Sometimes, experience is exactly what we need. That's probably what they meant with "Write what you know". I think we writers are ingenious enough to fake it by using a mixture of observation and imagination. Think of all of the crime writers out there? Are all of them coroners or cops? No? There you go then.

Sometimes imagination in the right amounts would be the perfect tool for the job. I'm thinking of genres like fantasy and sci fi. Still, powers of observation and/or experience can lower the need for an imagination in hyper drive. For example, using observation of people around you to make the story more character driven...

Observation lacking? If you read or write a lot, you can use that experience to fill the gaps. You can even *shiver* stick to writing about what you know so that you don't have to learn anything new. Or you can use your imagination. Not everyone has two parent families (in fact these are becoming more and more rare), but writers can use what they've read to imagine what it's like. Or... they can avoid writing about two parent families.

All this makes me really happy, because I'm young and lack a lot of life experience. It really doesn't matter. I can observe and imagine. Just so, some of you might have felt constrained because you're unobservant. So what? Use what you have and make the most of it. That's why you have it, after all.

Do you have all three the hammers? Or do you compensate with the one or two that you do have? Which ones do you have and how do you use them in your genre?


  1. There's a great quote from a tv show that goes along the lines of: why do I keep hitting my hand with a hammer? Because it feels good when I stop.

    I think writing is not a matter of tools, rather how long can you withhold from being a normal person to sit down and write out the story. Because it feels so good when you've finished writing a book.

  2. I guess I don't bother so much with if I have the tools or not, I just go for it. Then when I'm done, if I'm lacking something, then I'll do whatever I can to fix it. Even if you have all three hammers, sometimes you hit harder with two of them and you have to go back and make the third stronger :)

  3. I need to have all three; they feed each other.

  4. I liked Steph's quote about the hammer. LOL I think I've been hitting myself a lot lately.
    I think I have the tools I need but I don't always apply them as fully as I could.

  5. I agree with you about "a hammer's a hammer". If I bang away long enough, things do start to fall into place.

    Great analogy!

  6. That's a great quote... it's very true, but I love what you said here:

    "If I keep knocking away, I will achieve what I want, regardless of the hammer I used"

    That's exactly the right attitude, because at the end of the day, you use the tools you have and you make them work :)

  7. I think some people will have strengths in one thing or another, but need a bit of all three. I don't think I have much imagination, but gaining more experience and observation can make up for that (or just read a lot and watch a lot of sci-fi - painful, but I suffer through ;) I think we have more experience than we think and you really have to go deep. It can be just emotions that you had in a different context. Grief over a pet when you were 8 gives you details into grief over a family member when you're 30. It's not the same, but like you said, then the other two play in. Interesting thoughts!

  8. Very good points. Some might also say planning, research and perseverance as their 3 hammers.

  9. Excellent post. I think the "write what you know" philosophy comes from misinterpretation. If you have read about something or heard about it then you kind of know it without having actually experienced it. Imagination can go along way. In the toolbox you might want to add duct tape. You can fix just about anything with a hammer and some duct tape.

    Tossing It Out

  10. Wonderful post! Hmm, I suppose I have all three hammers, but depending on what I'm writing and where I am with it, some of those hammers might be smaller than the others.

  11. Love the new layout! =)

    As for the post, I use each hammer for different things. I have a contemporary project, set in high school, featuring a teenage boy with a crisis of faith whose parents are going through a divorce. This is all experience writing, except, well, I'm not a male of African descent, but, you know--technicalities. ;) In my fantasy writing, it's the complete reverse--all observation and imagination, with just a smidgen of experience. I love them both, but, to continue the analogy, they need different hammers in different sizes to get the job done. =)

  12. I never would have thought of describing things this way before, but I like it! Three hammers :-) I do tend to observe more from books than real life, at least when it comes to conversation. Just can't seem to get the hang of 'hearing' different styles of speaking...


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