I don’t have to tell you that we live in “interesting times,” and I’m not writing to preach to you about the events that happened yesterday in our nation’s capital. In a time such as ours, you already get enough of that from other sources, and I’m certain you have your own opinion on the matter. With that said, we all still have to live here, in this time. For those of us who write, the things that happen around us often bear a heavy influence on the things we make. Should we allow these forces to influence us in those ways, or should we pretend they don’t exist as we create our work?
Writing as an Escape from Reality
Many people find that their writing gives them temporary relief from the world in which we live, even people who are influenced by, or who write about, current events. For those of us who write fiction, it allows us to enter into a world entirely of our creation. We are the masters of the worlds we build, and we get to decide whether the places, people and events that we create will reflect the real world. Often times, that real world seeps onto our pages, whether we realize it or not.
The best example I can give of a famous author writing something entirely different would be J. R. R. Tolkien. Although many people have drawn similarities between his work in the world of Middle Earth and his time spent as a soldier in World War I, he was not always forthcoming with the connection between those events and the world he created.
One of the best conversations I’ve found about the question of Tolkien’s influences in his books can be found here, where users of this site have compiled references and quotes that bolster the idea that Tolkien was writing about the things he knew, even if he notoriously hated allegory. So, even someone who wanted to avoid direct comparisons in his writing, who was willing to create an expansive, enormous history of a world of his own design, was not able to avoid writing about the things in his life that had such profound effects on him.
Setting Limits to the Real World’s Influence
Writing about the real world isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can help us to better work through, categorize and process everything by doing so. However, if writing about the real world isn’t what gives you the greatest mental reward when doing so, then you should consider setting limitations to what you allow to get added to your pages.
If you want to make something seem more “timeless,” then try not to date yourself so much by adding references to things that are going on at the time of writing. Some writers have made a career out of it, namely the creators of Comedy Central’s South Park, who thrive on current events as their main source of fuel for their writing. They are able to do this so well because they have an extremely fast turnaround time on each episode. Go watch 6 Days to Air (2011) to see for yourself how they do it.
However, if you’re a writer who writes books or scripts that have a much slower turnaround time, then you’re running a big risk by including those events in your writing. Remember that most people have a very short attention span, and while something may be today’s big news, a year or three later when your work finally gets released, people will either have forgotten about it entirely, or it’s just not as big as what has happened since then. In this case, you will most likely want to avoid direct inclusion.
An Example from Grub Street
A few years back, I attended the 2019 Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference in Boston hosted by Grub Street. The keynote speaker, Stacey D’Erasmo, gave a wonderful speech about how the work of certain authors, including herself, were influenced and affected by certain events of upheaval in their own lives. She explains how each of us could easily undergo such events, and how it is something to embrace when it happens, as it can ultimately shape our writing for the better.
If you have time, and are interested, I highly recommend watching the video on Grub Street.