writers_pen_nib_imagine_charm_necklace_by_jayelknight-d6povj0It’s not often that one hears a statement that is both undeniably true and contradictory to the nature of everything we do. But at a reception this past spring, I heard such a statement.

A small group of us were discussing the life of the author in whose honor the reception was being held. This author, who had written both a memoir and a novel, had been separated from his family at the age of twelve and forced to become a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

“My son is twelve,” I said. “I try to think of my own son in those shoes…” My voice trailed off as I began to conjure images of my American, middle-class, twelve-year-old son suddenly, violently, torn from me and the rest of our family, forced to survive in lawlessness, impelled to run for his life, left with no choice but to kill and to maim. The effort quickly formed a universe of horrific thoughts in my head that immediately made me want to leave the reception, go home to my son and hold him tightly to me.

“You can’t,” said a man in the group, taking advantage of my external silence.

I faced him. “I try to imagine–”

“You can’t. You can’t know what that’s like unless you’ve been through it. We can’t imagine what that feels like.”

True enough. I can’t. No one can know those acts, that life, for certain, without having been there. I would never presume to write that author’s story.


I can imagine something else. I can imagine another person, say, a twelve-year-old child who suffers a terrible loss—maybe she loses her parents in a car crash. Maybe her sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time in Gaza this month. Maybe her brother was a heroin addict and she herself is teetering on the brink, finding herself between “friends” and opportunities to take her life in directions she doesn’t even understand. Or maybe I am fascinated by an ancient culture I’ve heard about in some place I traveled, a native Central American people, and I’m willing to put in the effort to learn about that culture and develop characters. A young protagonist, perhaps, pushed by a traumatic event into a non-traditional role in her culture, challenged in her need to develop into something she’s not. I’m starting to see her already.

None of these specific circumstances have happened to me. But I have the tools to write them if I so desire.

Imagining is the job of the fiction writer. This is what we do, every time we sit down in front of a blank page. It seems as if we’re working with no more than a keyboard or pen and paper, but that’s not true. We have at our disposal every person we’ve ever known, every experience we’ve ever had, seen, heard and felt. Our ingredients are the people who have ignored us and caused us to search our brains for reasons why, people whom we’ve admired, both intimately and from a distance, and people whom we’ve tried to emulate. People who love us despite our faults; people we can’t stand despite our efforts to be better people ourselves.

And we are not limited to our own experiences. We can conduct research, both through various media and via my favorite method, in-person interviews. Access to other people’s stories and body language, their reactions and second-guesses—even their imaginations—is rich food for the writer’s imagination.

When we are ready, we begin to extrapolate. We pull and weave, absorb and combine until we develop a sense of a fictional person in a specific setting facing a particular series of circumstances. Perhaps you have never been in a plane crash. (I hope you haven’t.) Well, then you can’t say with absolute certainty how you would feel if you were. But do you remember that first time you flew, maybe when you were twelve, and the plane hit sudden turbulence? You screamed and looked at your father; what was happening? What did it mean? You expected he would look back at you with confidence, and a reassuring answer, but he wore panic on his face for a split second before he laughed and told you not to worry. You’ll never forget that moment of pure fear, the way your stomach seemed to pull at you from inside your body, nor will you forget that you realized for the first time that your father could be afraid, too.

Now what do you know about your twelve-year-old character? Is she brash, the confident kid in school who hides her insecurity that stems from the scars on her back and her arm? Where did those come from? Another kid? Why does no one know about this? Is she excited about this plane trip? Will it take her away from a bad situation? Or bring her to one? What’s her expectation when she boards? Who is she with? How will that person act as the plane goes down?

You can’t know how any real, given twelve-year-old would feel as his plane crashes, nor can you fire off a blanket set of reactions covering all twelve-year-olds. But by piecing together the scraps of what you know and what you seek to know, you can perceive how this particular twelve-year-old kid you created might feel and act as her plane goes down.

A writer’s imagination is the general honed down to specific details, so that a single character or story’s truth can shine through. If we do this right, the details we create will uncover a universal, yet specific truth or two for a reader—possibly even a truth we haven’t imagined.

So in answer to the man at the reception: no, we can’t be certain how it would feel for a twelve-year old to lose his family and be thrust into an awful setting of forced brutality and war unless we’ve been through it. But we can create a individual twelve-year-old, with his own feelings, apply what we know and seek out new knowledge, create circumstances, boundaries and specific experiences, extrapolate and apply, and write until we emerge with a single, imaginary child’s world.

We do it every time we write words on a page. It’s the job description for a fiction writer.

Image courtesy Jaye L. Knight via deviantART.com.


About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.