In a recent post on one of my favorite writing blogs, Write it Sideways by Suzannah Windsor Freeman, contributing writer Susan Bearman offered a post called Finding Extraordinary Writing in an Ordinary Life.
Susan wrote, “I thought you had to lead an extraordinary life to have important stories to tell, and my life seemed completely ordinary: two loving parents who stayed married to each other; no major illness or tragedy; four loving grandparents, and even four great grandparents who lived long enough for me to get to know them. I lived in the Midwest; I went to college, got a job, got married, had children. What stories did I have to tell leading such an ordinary life?”
For several days now, I have wanted to write a post in response to a comment left here at Writer’s Block by one of my favorite authors, Arlene Banfield. Arlene shared with us one of the most complimentary and profound comments a writer could ever receive, “Today, my husband paid me the highest compliment after reading one of my stories. “You haven’t lived this life, how can you write about it with so much clarity?”
I think both Arlene and Susan are writing about the same thing. And it is a question I get asked all the time. How do you come up with this stuff? How do you write about things that don’t exist or things you have never experienced?
When done correctly, I believe it is accomplished in the same way an actor uses Lee Strasberg’s “Method Acting” to convince an audience that they are someone else living through an extraordinary experience, which their real life would never put them in.
“What is “Method Acting”? It is a form of acting where the actor mystically “becomes” the character or tries to somehow literally live the character in life. Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself and the actor is capable of doing this by bringing to mind “visions” (sensory images) of experiences in life which are no longer present. In his way, Aristotle was stating the core principle of The Method – the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination as the foundation for (re)experiencing in acting.” (www.strasburg.com)
When we create worlds, characters and situations foreign to our own life experiences it is our past experiences that are at the core of what we are writing about. Our story’s theme is driven by our familiarity with emotions and responses to our past. The plot is driven by the memories of our actions to those experiences.
I have never been surfing off the coast of Australia, standing steadily on a rocketing surf board, tasting the salt in the air as the spray of sea water whips through my hair. My heart pounding with exhilaration in my chest, when suddenly, I am slammed onto the concrete surface of the surf and find myself nose to nose with a face full of teeth attached to a dorsal fin.
So, how could I write a story about a near death experience with a Great White? How do I do it well? How do I do it authentically for my readers? By borrowing from my past.
I can recall times when I was rocketing through the ocean on a boat or Jet Ski. I can open those files in the recesses of my brain and write about how the air smelled, how the sea spray felt on my face, how exciting and reckless it felt to be going so fast.
Then I can access another group of memories. I can “re-experience” how it felt riding my horse, galloping in an opened field enjoying the wind in my face and the power of his body beneath me when suddenly, without warning, the scenery around me begins to turn over and all the air is forced out of my lungs as my body slams on the hard ground.
I can recall the panic that washes over me, the heat that flushes my cheeks and the trembling of my legs after someone cuts me off and I have a near death experience driving down the highway.
By pooling all these experiences together with what facts I know about sharks and surfing form documentaries and movies and school trips to aquariums, pressing my nose up against the thick glass of the shark tank, coming face to face with these chilling predators, I can create a believable scene that my readers could get lost in. And just as importantly, one that is uniquely mine.
We are in the business of telling stories, of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Every time we sit at our computer or stare down at a blank piece of paper we are on the precipice of doing just that. It’s in all of us. It’s in the fibers of the experiences that make up who we are.
What experiences can you tap into?