18 January, 2011

Dana's Dojo: Extrapolation vs. Experience

Today in the Dojo: The secret to writing what you don't know.

"I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience."

For those who wonder how I spend most afternoons off, it involves the following: I plan to do many necessary things.  I sit down to check my email.  My cat crawls into my lap and curls up in excrutiatingly cute positions.  So the house goes uncleaned, the groceries unbought, and Dana unshowered until the cat finishes cuddling around five. 

I am chained to my computer by cute. 

So while I'm trapped, I write posts.  Such as this one.

Lest you think the above was just a thowaway paragraph merely All About Dana, look at it again.  Some of you may never have experienced the joys of a purring bundle of homicidal fur lying across your arms and gazing adoringly into your face.  Some of you may not even like it much.  But you can all imagine yourselves into my world, can't you?  You've cuddled with a friend, a lover, a child or perhaps a dog or ferret when you should be doing something else.  You've felt their warmth and breath against your stomach.  You've looked into each other's eyes and experienced an ineffible adoration while at the same time thinking in the far corner of your mind, "Damn it, I was supposed to be..."

Of course, your respective bundles of joy may not have been licking your arm with a sandpaper tongue, and for that you should be grateful.  However, the fact remains: you do not have to experience this precisely to imagine it.

Now let me turn it on its head: you don't have to experience it precisely to write it with authority.

Eh?  What's that?  You can write what you don't know?  Isn't that dead against all that write-what-you-know advice?


Let's be utterly realistic here: if we were confined to writing what we know, there would be no fantasy, science fiction, historicals, westerns, spy thrillers (the actual life of a spy is mostly dead boring), or about a billion other types of books currently populating bookstore shelves.  In one fell swoop, we destroy countless publishing categories with this rule.

To take it further, there would also be strict limitations on what kind of things the individual author could write.  I'll use myself as a sample case.  If I stayed true to the "write what I know" rule, I could only write about an aspiring author who works in a call center and doesn't get out much.  There's a bit of drama in there: mother has bipolar disorder and occasionally gets committed because of psychotic episodes when the meds quit working.  But she lives a couple thousand miles away, so it's all drama at second hand.  Dead boring.

I would be trapped in a single viewpoint: mine.  Single white female.  Smoker.  Worry wart.  Straight.  No major tragedies in life.  Even the Defining Crisis of becoming a statistic at the age of eighteen presented no more than some rethinking of assumptions about people and a very minor case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I overcame without shrinks or drugs because it really wasn't that horrid, comparitively speaking.  Pretty sad, isn't it? 

If I could only write What I Know, I couldn't write anything that I write now.  Not one single word. 

Take a moment and think about the kinds of things you would be forced to write if you could only write what you, yourself, have experienced firsthand.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.  Judge Judy is on, I can keep myself amused.


Scary, isn't it?

But there's hope.  We're not trapped by some idiot rule that says we can only Write What We Know.  Really.  We're not.  And I can prove it.  Another anecdote for you:

After my Defining Crisis, my father sat down with me one night and had A Talk.  He said, "You've always wanted to watch Full Metal Jacket with me.  I didn't think you could understand it.  You can understand it now.  You're a survivor, too."

Or words to that effect.  I really don't remember them specifically because my jaw was in the way.  Kinda hurts when it hits the floor that hard.  Here's a man who survived a year in Vietnam during the heavy fighting, who was afraid to take his boots off for three months because every time he did, his unit came under heavy mortar fire, who got shot in the jaw and took shrapnel in the leg that's still working its way out of his body, who lost most of the hearing in one ear because some idiot fired off a .45 in a tunnel thinking a shadow was Viet Cong, who spent Christmas that year pinned down under rifle fire running out of ammo, who still can't go to see the Wall because there are too many friends' names on it...  This man is now telling me that I can understand all of the pain and fear and rage and anguish because I spent one hour one morning wondering if I was going to get killed with a dull kitchen knife.  He equates this to a year of getting shot at in a jungle.  The hell?

Well, I didn't argue the point.  I wanted to see Full Metal Jacket with my dad because he'd told me that this was the only movie about Vietnam that really captured what it was like.  Maybe I'd know by the end of the movie why my situation matched his.  So we watched.  And I was even more perplexed.  How the hell could he possibly think that my situation had been even a fraction of his?

Well, he was right.  He knew that because I'd experienced a credible threat to my life, lived however briefly under the fear of permanent mutilation, and then had to come back with the determination that this would not define or destroy me, that I could understand Vietnam in a way I couldn't have before.  I could imagine my way in.

Extrapolation, my darlings.  It's our most powerful tool.

A lot of writers seem to fall prey to the idea that if one hasn't experienced something, one can't write truthfully about it.  "I can't write war because I'm not a soldier."  "I can't write from a woman's viewpoint because I'm a man."  "I can't write gay because I'm straight."  And on and on.  Some writers buy into this so strongly that they never step out of their own heads.  You can tell these writers.  One aspect of their story is drawn in sweeping detail and throbs with authority, and everything else that had to be there is dead wood.  Stereotypes.  Cutouts.  They never learn the power of extrapolation.

We're not going to do that, are we?  We're going to learn the power.  We're going to let go of our limitations.

It starts from what we do know and have experienced.  Unless you've lived your life in a sensory deprivation tank, you've experienced things: love, hate, fear, relief, sorrow, joy...  need I continue?  You're human.  You know what these things are.  You've been through them.  It's just a matter of degree.

Another anecdote, this one brief: on the first day of Abnormal Psychology, our instructor told us that by the end of the course, we'd believe we had every disorder in the book.  You don't, he assured us, most of you are perfectly normal.  Most of us?  Just most?  You're all human, he said, blythely ignoring the nervous looks as we wondered which ones had the real psychoses.  Humans feel all of these things.  What makes it abnormal is the degree

I learned that day that I could understand any psychological disorder in that book, simply because I'm a human being and have felt all of these things to a much lesser degree.  Instead of saying "I can't imagine what it would be like to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder," I could say, "I've been pretty self-centered at times.  How did that feel?  Now, intensify that feeling until..."

No, I couldn't write a character with Narcissistic Personality Disorder with absolute authenticity, but if I did my research and drew on my own wells of experience, I could get pretty damned close.  And what's authenticity, anyway?  Put a dozen people suffering from the disorder in a room and they'll all disagree on what's authentic experience anyway.  Everybody's different.  No one description of what it's like will ever please all those who know.  But get enough of it right, and they'll fill in the rest.

Personal Experience + Research x A Lot of Imagination2 = Authentic Enough, Damn It!

Remember that all we're really needing to do is put forth a reasonable facsimilie of the way things are.  We want the nitty-gritty details that simulate the truth.  But we can get them from other sources than having done it ourselves.

The equation is so simple.  You've got a situation: a cop pinned down under gunfire.  You're no cop.  You've never crouched behind a car while people shoot at you and your colleague lies dead beside you.  How can you write this?

Personal experience.  You've felt fear before, raw, clammy fear.  You've been angry.  You've been in situations you weren't sure you could get out of.  Sure, maybe it was just a bad blind date, and it was more tragicomedy than anything else, but those emotions were there.  Go back to them.  Draw on them.  Ask yourself: How much more intense would this be if I were trapped behind a car next to a dead guy while people shoot at me?

Okay.  Now comes the research: You've hopefully watched some cop shows.  If not, COPS is on at least one channel most nights.  Read a book or dozen about police officers.  I'm not talking fiction, I'm talking real life journalism stuff.  Got friends who are cops?  Great!  Get 'em talking.  Now you're ready to ask yourself: how would someone with this training and this mentality deal with these emotions, all of that fear and grief and rage? 

Now you're ready to imagine.  Go ahead.  Live the scene.  If you have to go outside and kneel behind your car in the blazing hot sun of the afternoon and point your finger and yell "Bang!" while neighbors gawp, do it.  Ignore them when they dial 911 and have the people in white coats come for you.  All you have to tell the shrinks is that you're writing a book.  They'll leave you alone.  The point is, you do whatever you have to do to get yourself into this person's head without actually going out and joining the police academy.

All right?  I said imagination squared up there, for those of you observant enough to notice the superscript 2.  Here's where you square: remember that episode of COPS you were watching?  What detail in the midst of the chaos really stood out?  Use it, or something like it.  When I wrote the above scene, it was a broken tail light and a person's reflection in a pool of blood.  Since there was a pool of blood, I remembered what my blood smells and tastes and feels like.  We've all bled.  Imagine that to the power of 10.  Now you know what it's like to glance over to see if anything else is coming at you, or maybe somebody shouted, or something else drew your attention for a fraction of a second away from the spot from whence the bullets are coming - anyway, you know what it's like to glance over, and see shards of tail light gleaming in the sun, and your reflection in a pool of blood.  You know what it feels like to have that blood seeping into the knee of your uniform.  You know what it smells like.  And you know the emotions involved, and you know what's going through this person's mind, because you let yourself become the conduit for your character's experience.

What did Glynis say?  "I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience."

If you open yourself to these people, if you use every bit of knowledge and experience you have to understand them, they'll speak through you.  They'll present themselves, often to the extent that you'll look back later and wonder where the hell that came from, because that wasn't me talking there.  I've never done that!


A friend of mine wrote a story about a Vietnam vet who goes to the Wall and can't go up to it.  A man approached him later and asked him when he'd done his tour, and which war it had been.  "Huh?" says the author.  "Dude, I'm nineteen - I've never served in the military!"  "But this was exactly what it's like!" the vet said.  "How did you know?"

He knew because he'd read an article about the Wall opening in Washington, and he knew a little bit about Vietnam from other people, and he'd just put himself in there.  He walked toward the wall with the character, and stopped dead, and couldn't go on, and it was an absolutely authentic experience because, young and innocent as he was, he'd dealt with loss enough to extrapolate.  I can tell you it was eerie.  He read the story to me, and I knew he'd gotten it right, because he'd captured everything my dad had ever said or done regarding the War and the Wall.

See?  No need for the author to go live in a jungle shooting at people and being shot at for a year.  He was able to write something absolutely authentic anyway, because the character had been there, and he let the character tell him how it was. 

So use the equation: Personal Experience + Research x A Lot of Imagination2, get out of your characters' way when they tell you how something is, and just write it down.  You'll get it right.  If not, you'll go back and experience something (like walking a labyrinth) and do a bit more research (like on sleep deprivation, starvation and sunstroke) and imagine more, and get it right next go round.

Never let anyone tell you that you can only write what you know, that you can only authentically speak about things you yourself have personally experienced.  That's just not true.  If you do enough of the necessary work, the rest is just a matter of extrapolation, and if you can't extrapolate with confidence you either need to practice or quit writing.

Right?  Right. 

So go.  Extrapolate.  Speak beyond the bounds of personal experience.

1 comment:

Nicole said...

Great post! And a great reminder for those who want to write outside of their comfort zones!