Today we have an excellent guest post from Trish Nicholson, who gives some good advice on using real life experiences in our writing.
We are all familiar with the advice: ‘write about what you know’ but what does it mean?
When Susan, a new member of our writing group, responded to feedback on her story, wailing, “But it’s true. It happened like that!” we all realised how ambiguous that statement is. Yet it is basically good advice for writing both fiction and non-fiction, so I thought about it, and this is what I came up with.
‘Real life’ is not a story:
Our lives are made up of disconnected actions: catching the train to work, texting friends, changing a nappy, pushing a vacuum cleaner around; and of discontinuous shreds of conversation full of ums and errs. The actions don’t make a story, and the ums and errs don’t make dialogue, until writing craft is applied to organise them into plots and scripts. Writing craft is based on reality, but makes sense of it by selecting only those elements that can be woven into a sequence with a specific meaning and purpose. Even fantasy has to be grounded in some idea of reality for readers to comprehend it. A story is an interpretation of life crafted into words, and so is an article or an essay.
And unlike ‘real life’, stories and articles have a finite ending – happy, tragic or enigmatic, they have to end. Have you noticed how little closure there is in our lives – even when we seek it? Work schedules, relationships, other people’s expectations, our own feelings; there are always frayed threads everywhere because, well, ‘life goes on.’ One of the important things to learn about writing ‘what you know’ is how to structure it to a satisfying conclusion.
We know more than we think:
However mundane or boring life seems at times, our experiences and perceptions are all part of the human saga and a rich vein of knowledge for a writer. To tap this source, we need to increase our awareness of what is going on around us, and inside us, and to record it. Whether in a diary, a prized moleskin notebook, or on the back of the gas bill, we should note not only what our five senses show us, but what we think it means and how we feel about it. Recording includes photographs – so easy now with digital devices – because we can mine these later, for visual clues and stimulation. We can then expand our personal knowledge with research where necessary.
When writing travelogue, I start by deciphering the scribbles in my journals – a collection of little black journalists’ tablets because they fit easily into a pocket, so are always at hand. Amongst all the facts – locations, dates, names – are snippets of overheard conversation, brief character sketches, stray words that come to mind to encapsulate what is happening, and cryptic comments about how I feel (often a great source of amusement to me on re-reading).
While studying my notes, I scroll through the photographs. Although we joke about tourists who ‘click it now and see it later’ – better photographs do result from immersion in a scene before pressing the button – a picture, even long after the event, can recall not only the occasion, but the smell, touch and sound associated with it. This process is equally productive for ‘experiencing’ the setting of your novel as you write.
Writing our experience:
The only difference between writing our experience as fiction, and as non-fiction, is what we write – not how we write: rhythm, imaginative language, character development and storytelling – all these elements of writing craft apply to both. In what they write, fiction writers have greater freedom to use their knowledge to create ‘worlds’ – within the limitations of reader credibility. Non-fiction writers have a duty to adhere to facts, and to honour the truth to the best of their ability. We are all subjective, that is an inescapable fact, but being aware of it, and sharing enough with readers for them to see where our truth comes from, helps achieve balance.
Within these constraints, non-fiction writers are free to express their experience and knowledge in the creative form and style of their choice. I’ll give you an example. My journal entry for a ruined, sixteenth century, fortified monastery included some dry historical facts, and the phrase, “massive structure – mist...eerie silence.”
With the photograph beside me as I wrote Journey in Bhutan, it became this: Standing in this quiet spot, listening to birds singing and leaves crinkling in the breeze, it is hard to imagine these hillsides echoing with the thunderous clatter of war horses and the deadly whisper of arrows, but since at least the seventh century, various Tibetan war-lords and rulers have tried to expand their influence into the favoured valleys of Bhutan.
I was attempting to whisper in the reader’s ear, to place them where I was standing, by using imagery. For Susan, trying to turn ‘what she knew’ into a short story, she already had the imagery, the inner experience; what she needed to do was create more ‘facts’ – incidents and conflicts – as well as a satisfying ending.
Trish Nicholson is the author of the illustrated e-book travelogue, Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.
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