I remember a time when I seriously talked to my mother about what I should do when I grew up. She knew I wanted to fly airplanes for a living; she also knew I had a proclivity for writing. I don’t believe she liked the idea of my flying around in far reaches of the atmosphere. After all, if you are screaming about the air with your hair on fire, there is a chance you could get hurt. I think my mother could see my life as a writer being so much safer than my life as a pilot.
Being a practical woman, however, when I asked her more pointed questions about writing, she told me I was not ready. “What do you mean?” I asked, somewhat indignant.
“You have not lived enough,” she replied.
“Huh?” I answered in the time honored traditional teenaged response.
“You don’t know enough right now,” she said. Then she went on to explain that in order to write about life, you must have lived a life. She said all great writers were older and not only have they lived their lives, they observed how others lived. They understood what was important in life and what was not. “In order to acquire that kind of understanding, you have to be older,” mom said. I was still puzzled. I had not yet read Catch-22.
She tried to explain to me the classic question posed in Joseph Heller’s novel. In Catch-22, Heller illustrated the concept that to go to war was insane, and to get out of it, the authorities had to declare you insane. This idea birthed so many variants of this phrase. “In order to get a job, you have to have experience. To get experience, you have to have a job.”
The same holds true of writing. In order to write about life, you must have lived a life. At the time, I could not fully understand what my mother was trying to tell me. Today, after having lived a good portion of my life, I now understand. Perceptions of the young are refreshing, but the reality of age and experience provides not only the subject of a painting, but also the canvas on which the artist brushed the painting.
To acquire perceptions and a canvas on which to paint, a writer has to live and experience a great deal. Sitting in a library reading books and journals is an experience, but not necessarily the proper experience. You can become an expert in any field through reading, but if that is the extent of your knowledge, you are going to play second fiddle to those who went out and actually did it.
Today, after a lifetime as a pilot, I am able to write about aviation from an expert point of view. I may have also surprised my mother – I am still here, enjoying both my writing and my flying.