It’s not really a surprising thing to learn things from books. Even apart from intentionally didactic works, I tend to learn a great deal about the world from reading: about cooking and clothing, other cultures and my own, stray skills. I have a tendency to buy random books for “story research,” by which I mean anything that to me will provide fodder for my own writing. Thus I have books on blacksmithing and falconry, nineteenth-century trades and knots, beekeeping and English architecture, the history of sweets and tulips and stage illusion, oh, all sorts of things.
Then there are the lessons one learns from the characters. This is the glory of writing, when one suddenly learns something about oneself and other people. This is part of why we read, to be drawn into other minds, to spend some time looking on the world through others’ eyes, to make friends of the soul.
But then there are the lessons I’ve learned as a writer from my own characters. This gets into slightly strange metaphysical territory, when I think to myself, “Ah, now, how would Fitzroy react to this?” or “This is how Raphael would do this” — not always a good thing! Fitzroy and Raphael are my two main characters, both of them recognizable tas coming out of my own experience and personality, but yet, very different takes, very different people from myself.
I understand duty and sacrifice and a kind of back-and-forth desire and fear of loving, at least a little, because I have worked through them with Raphael. I understand the gleeful spontaneity that borders on craziness because of the book I’m currently writing about Fitzroy Angursell, in his romp across various fantastic worlds. Even in the stories I’ve barely begun, I touch the edges of unknown parts of my soul by trying to think outside of myself.
It’s a weird but rather wonderful side effect of writing, these lessons I teach myself by trying to tell stories. This isn’t something I’ve much heard other writers talk about, though I’m sure it happens a great deal; some of the more autobiographical novelists seem to endeavour to do this. I don’t; I like trying to imagine my own way into other lives. These lessons I learn are side effects of trying to tell the story, something I learn about myself afterwards, on reflection.
They’re not quite the same sort of lessons I learn from books I read, or whether those who read my writing would get similar things. Of course, they are not shining the mirror upon themselves in quite the same way, but rather looking at the mirror I, the writer, hold up to them. But when you read your own writing that way . . . I don’t write myself into my stories, but obviously, the stories all come out of my own imagination, and so are reflections of my thoughts, given external form. I tend to learn rather more than I do from the bathroom mirror.