A broader perspective

Why are we creating and/or reading articles about the art, science and craft of writing?  After all, very few ‘general’ readers are interested in the subject.  We’re basically preaching to the choir when we write at MGC and/or similar blogs.  It’s a bunch of actual and wannabe authors talking to – and at, and sometimes past – each other.  Why?  What’s the point?

I’m very serious about that question.  In recent months, as I’ve been unable to do much fiction writing due to the pain and other difficulties caused by kidney stones, I’ve tried reading other ‘writing blogs’.  They’re doing the same thing we are here, and often appear to have the same limitations on their perspective and points of view.  It’s as if the authors can get lost in the narrowness of their perspective, seeing the whole world through the lens of creative writing.  Doesn’t this ignore a great deal of reality that simply isn’t visible through that lens?  Isn’t it like being addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or whatever – nothing else in one’s life can be seen except through the ‘lens’ of one’s addiction?

Dave Freer has rendered us a service with two recent articles on MGC about providing for oneself and one’s family.  I don’t think he could possibly get locked into an internal monologue about writing when he’s thirty feet underwater, wrestling with a lobster or disputing its ownership with a moray eel!  There’s not much fictional or fantastic about that situation – it’s intensely practical and ‘in-the-moment’.  I somehow doubt that Dave’s thoughts were anywhere near the latest activities of his protagonist!  If they had been, they might have proved to be such a distraction that he wouldn’t have made it back to the surface again.  Reality demands all of his attention at moments like that.

I’ve thought about the same thing while trying to get back into writing the latest volume in the Maxwell Saga, which I hope to publish in February, God willing.

stoke the flames higher cover ebook blog size

As you know, the Maxwell series is military science fiction.  I’ve ‘been there and done that’ when it comes to military service.  I know whereof I speak . . . and that’s a danger as well as a blessing.  I can become so wrapped up in the way I know it should be that I forget I have a limited perspective.  For others, serving in different countries and different armed services and different branches or specializations of those armed services, their experience of military life and combat might have been very different to mine.  However, their emotional reaction to combat and blood and death was and is probably pretty similar – it’s been that way since time immemorial, after all.  Something like five millennia ago, as Otzi died I’m sure he felt the same fear and pain as any other victim of combat, and I’m sure those who killed him felt the same emotions as any other victor.  Those factors weren’t dependent on literacy, or education, or anything except the heat of the moment and the scent of blood in their nostrils and the lived reality of triumph or defeat.  Yet, most of those who write about that event today can’t even begin to identify with those things, because their experience of life is so vastly different from Otzi’s.  They’re scientists, academics . . . not primitives.  There’s an intellectual and conceptual disconnect between those world views that’s almost impossible to bridge.

How do we overcome that disconnect in our writing?  How can we authentically, meaningfully write about things – emotions, reactions, events – that we’ve never personally experienced in any way, shape or form?  That’s been the dilemma for writers ever since the first work of fiction.  I suggest that a certain amount of experience of life is essential if one’s to write about it authentically;  and I further suggest that if that experience is lacking, one’s writing will also be lacking.

Let me use Shakespeare as a classic example.  I’m convinced he must have experienced military service in some form, and probably combat as well.  Read his scenes set in military camps, his accounts of soldiers’ thoughts and conversations before battle.  They could be translated into modern English and put in the mouths and minds of modern troops with no trouble at all.  The fit is almost perfect.  I don’t think someone ignorant of military reality could have written them.  Want another example?  How about a nurse writing about what goes on in the emergency room?  I don’t think anyone who’s experienced only the sterile, by-the-book, aseptic wards of a hospital could understand the hurly-burly emotional roller-coaster of dealing with that environment.  I submit that it takes experience to understand it, and it takes real ability to communicate that experience rather than simply describe so intense a reality.

I know this question has been pondered many times, but I think it’s worth revisiting it in order to reorient ourselves towards reality, to drag ourselves (kicking and screaming, if necessary) out of our cocoons.  Is such a broader perspective on life, on reality, really necessary in order to write about it convincingly?  Or is it a luxury that most writers can’t afford?  Can they ‘make do’ without it?

14 Comments

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14 responses to “A broader perspective

  1. I’m inclined to agree that a certain broad experience is necessary. OR, having a broad of experienced people around you, people who trust you and vice versa, who can talk to you, can correct mis-understandings, or who can point you to first hand accounts and descriptions by people who were there. It is not a perfect substitution, but that plus the ability to mentally put oneself in the head-space of someone else can help immensely. And the humility to know what you don’t know and gloss around it convincingly, or get outside expertise.

  2. Experience is necessary, I think. In that I agree with Peter. But research is the second leg of the writer’s stool, and the third leg, the all important one, is imagination. You must be able to take experiences and translate them to new settings. Do it well, do it successfully, you carry the reader along with you so that he too experiences your imagination.
    A good writer can make the visit worthwhile.

    • Experience, research, imagination… Couple more ingredients for the stone soup, I think, might be the empathy or projection that we expect the reader to do. You kind of hint at this. After all, even if we know darn well exactly what it feels like to fall out of a tree, the emotions, the fear, the dizzying spin, all of that, we still need to help the reader to step into that skin, make that mistaken grab for the branch that was just a bit too far away and slippery, and fall. Thump! The point is that we don’t just say “he fell,” we provide enough little details so that the reader feels and experiences that fall along with poor Humpty-Dumpty. Here the person who has a little more distance, who doesn’t know it inside out, may actually have an advantage because they know what it takes to put the reader in that place. Or at least, if you know it so well you don’t even think about it, take the time to go back to those learning experiences, to times when you walked through all the little steps, sights, sounds, and feelings, so that the reader really gets it, instead of just having a glimpse of someone drawing a gun and pulling a trigger.

      ‘Tother little bit is you don’t have to do it all alone. Experts, beta readers, you can draw on a range of folks to help fill in the missing pieces. It’s really part of research, I guess — beyond secondary sources (who may well provide great frameworks for understanding, metaphors and such to illuminate, and other helpful bits) and primary sources that can give you their experience, often now in videos and podcasts and other forums, you can talk and work directly with people who have been there, done that, and have the t-shirt and scars to show it. Heck, even if you have the experience yourself, talk with some of your friends and get their insights and comments. Show them that snippet describing the dark night when the gas truck blew up in the middle of town, and see what they have to say.

      There you go. Experience, research, imagination, a dash of empathy for the readers, and some extra expert input — soup is getting right thick now. That soupstone did a right good job.

  3. I agree. The ideal writer has an insatiable curiosity, a hunger for new experiences, and the desire to communicate his thoughts and feelings to others.

    On the other hand, one can adapt one’s experience into different narratives about events one has not participated in. And then there’s the gifted writer who can conjure fascinating tales and scenarios out of nearly nothing. Think Emily Dickinson or Stephen Crane.

  4. The Other Sean

    I hope you feel better and are able to finish the book. Then I can throw more money at you.

  5. Some broad experience is definitely needed. I couldn’t write what I do, when I was in college. I didn’t know how things _worked_ then. Still don’t, in many fields. That’s what beta readers are for. To gently hint that you obviously know diddly squat about sailing. Or that your history is all wrong.

    But no one can have experienced everything. You still have to imagine, extrapolate . . . guess. As my husband once said, while I was whining about having trouble getting the hand-to-hand battle in zero G against a Space Alien right: “David Weber’s never experienced zero G combat either.”

    Oh. Right. But at least that isn’t a field where a sizable percent of the readers will have experience. No wonder I love writing SF.

  6. One mark of an old utility guy is that we perpetually glance at the power lines when we drive. We can’t help it anymore than a mechanic can help how he keys in to different sounds, or maybe a nurse pick up on health issues. Our lives shape up. It shouldn’t be surprising that if we write, we look at the world from the perspective of a writer.

    Note that this depends on whether what we’re doing keys in with particular aspects of our lives. I often think about stories while mowing the yard or hoeing the garden, but never when I’m just inches away from high voltage. It’s when our mind can wander slightly, or when it’s similar to what we do for a living (such as riding the lines), that it keys in to our primary interest or means of livelihood. Put us face-to-face with a doctor discussing a medical condition, and we’re likely focused on that regardless of what we do for a living.

    • Uncle Lar

      Spent ten years with C&NW railroad from ’74 to ’84. Still can’t watch a train without doing journal inspection and which line each car belongs to.

  7. And RAH was a peace-time Naval officer who, as far as we know, never led ground troops in combat. Of course, he would have know a lot of Marines who had. His Mobile Infantry seems based more on the Marine Corps than on the U.S. Infantry (a branch of the U.S. Army). No surprises there. Starship Troopers is also a very good book; also not a surprise.

    • Uncle Lar

      RAH did graduate Annapolis class of 1929 so many of his instructors would have served in WWI. He was medically discharged in 1934 with a diagnosis of tuberculosis so missed out on a combat role. He served on the USS Lexington aircraft carrier and during the war worked for the Navy in aeronautical engineering. I expect a lot of that required intimate knowledge of the combat performance of naval aircraft against the enemy.

  8. A lifetime of experience is lovely – if you can get it. Mine is all at least 27 years old – when I lost the ability to do anything. But the imagination still works for a few hours every day – and seems up to producing stuff.

    You work with what you have and who you are. And there are probably plenty of readers with similar or even less exciting lives. Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters probably didn’t get out much.

    I would be an absolute fool to try to write Military SF. Hmmm.

  9. Christopher M. Chupik

    I listen and remember tidbits for future reference. I’ve accumulated quite the mental library of random facts that sometimes become useful details.

  10. I find it interesting and I am not an author I am a reader, when I find myself at Con sitting at a table where everyone else is an author or trying to be like to point out that people like me are necessary LOL

  11. (Found in the opening pages of a Brian Aldiss novel.)

    “It is safer for a novelist to choose as his subject something he feels about than something he knows about.” — L. P. Hartley