Writing from Borrowed Experience

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You have probably heard the advice that you should "write what you know" and as I've suggested, you certainly should write from your own experience. The things you have seen, tasted, heard, touched, and smelled with your own senses are most often more easily conveyed than sensual experiences strange to you. For example, you may describe the sensation of kayaking level 3 rapids on the Green River while you would be at a loss to write about being a bicycle courier in New York City. But we are possessed of imagination as well as sensual perception. The beauty of writing fiction, as well as creative nonfiction, is that we can imagine ourselves into lives we've never known by understanding our own experience.

Consider the example about the bicycle courier above. You have never lived in the city and you don't particularly like bicycles. But you love the mix of fear and exhilaration you feel when you are navigating your kayak through difficult rapid systems. You can stretch yourself to imagine that riding a bike through heavy New York traffic might offer the same rush. You can then describe an unfamiliar activity with the visceral emotion of something you know. You lie. But you lie honestly.

You know what it takes to risk safety for the thrill of the river. You imagine it may be a similar drive that motivates the New York bike messenger. You transfer your personally experienced "truth" to a fictive situation, a lie. But the truth is what counts. The fiction convincingly conveys the messenger's exhilaration in the risk she takes. You write what you do not know, but you imagine it from what you know.

And, surprisingly, you know more than you might imagine.

Writing Practice A.

Freewrite! Remember to write the first responses that come to your mind—and keep your pen on the page. Don't stop to erase or cross out. Don't worry about correct punctuation or grammar. Give yourself 5-10 minutes for each of the following prompts.

Finish the sentence and write another. Write a list or a narrative of everything that you know.

Shake out your hand and start again.

Now read through each freewrite and circle any sentences, phrases, or words that surprise you. Why? What did you discover about your own sense of knowing? What did you discover about what it means to know?

A good fiction writer creates convincingly by writing with integrity. When you channel your understanding of kayaking rapids to imagine biking in New York traffic, you are writing with integrity about something you don't know. You convince the reader of the fiction's integrity because you understand the reality of risk taking, the desire inherent in taking that risk. You write from that understanding.

Think back to an important event in your childhood, something that affected who you are today. Choose from the list of prompts below or come up with your own.

1. The first time you felt betrayed by an adult

2. Your first kiss

3. The death of a pet

4. A sports victory or academic honor

5. Your parents' divorce

6. Moving

7. A friend moving

8. Death of someone close to you

9. Meeting someone important to you

• In two to three paragraphs, describe the situation or event as you remember it. Try to include as many details as you can.

• Change the tense of the story. If you wrote about the event in the past tense, change it to present tense.

• Now rewrite your paragraphs in the third person (he or she). This may not be as simple as merely changing the pronouns. Think about what you need to change to effectively write the story as if it were being told about another person.

• Tell the story from the point of view of another "character." For example, if you wrote about your first kiss, write from the point of view of the person who kissed you back. If you wrote about the time you finished first in the 100-meter dash, write the story from the perspective of Anderson, who ran only two seconds under your time.

• Use the tone and emotions from this story to write a new fiction. Refer to the example about kayaking and cycling but focus on emotion rather than sensation.

• Finally, try writing the same event with a different emotional tone. This instruction is similar to the "Breaking Silence" exercise (page 17). Perhaps you wrote about an event to which those involved reacted with extreme anger. Imagine the same event with a different response, perhaps grief or forgiveness.

Sample Narratives

Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes

I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here's your mail. Here's your mail he said.

I make a story for my life, for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, "And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked."

I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who did not want to belong.

We did not always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong in but do not belong to.

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.

One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.

—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

The Things They Carried

After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.

He tried not to cry. With his entrenching tool, which weighed five pounds, he began digging a hole in the earth.

He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone for the rest of the war.

All he could do was dig. He used his entrenching tool like an ax, slashing, feeling both love and hate, and then later, when it was full dark, he sat at the bottom of his foxhole and wept. It went on for a long while. In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real, and because she was a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, a poet and a virgin and uninvolved, and because he realized she did not love him and never would.

—Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried


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