Imagining Beyond One’s Own Experience, or What the Fiction Writer Calls “Going to Work”

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.

Yet…

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.

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-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. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful essay, Tracy! You really caught me with the notion of how a specific set of details about a single character is such a wonderful key to unlocking our entire understanding about another place or time. It’s how we’re wired to learn, isn’t it? A high school teacher can drone on about an era, even vividly describing battles and fortunes won and lost, and yet we are much more captivated when we enter that same era’s events through story–seeing them through a single person’s eyes. Why are they at that battle? How do fortunes lost or won affect their outlook? What’s at stake for that one soul?

    This is why I love my job. Imagining. It’s what brings me back to this crazy-making drawing board, time and again. Thank you for the reminder!

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    • says

      Thank you, Vaughn! What you say about the high school teacher is so true: how many of us remember those dry lessons? But speaking for myself, some of the best knowledge I have of many earlier eras comes from settings and the stories told within them.

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  2. says

    Great thoughts, Tracy, and I entirely agree. The flaw in the “you can’t know” argument is that human reactions to singular events are monochromatic. They are not, so we have a large palette to dip into in order to create unique, immediate and realistic scenarios outside our personal experience.

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    • says

      Thanks so much for commenting, James! That’s it, exactly: different people will react to the same set of circumstances differently. It leaves a lot of room for the fiction writer to work in.

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  3. says

    I love this, Tracy. Thank you!

    I had a conversation with my sister a few years ago (she’s a visual artist and very creative, but not a writer or a reader) about the manuscript I was working on. I’d commented that I was trying to work out how my character would react to a particular situation. She replied: “But you can’t know. You’re just making it up. No one can know what any one else could be feeling or thinking or doing in any situation.”

    And in that moment, I found myself trying to articulate the idea that yes, I was making it up, but yes, I could still know. I could bring that character to life in my mind’s eye and conjure up her feelings and fears and emotions, and draw on things I’d seen and read and heard and lived, and then I could know. I just couldn’t find the words to explain it. Thank you for giving them to me.

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    • says

      Jo, that’s interesting to me that another creative person would have trouble understanding the imaginative component of a writer’s work. Like visual artists, we “paint,” too, using words as our medium. But we paint people, settings, situations, etc. that we invent.

      I’m glad if this post helps you explain the writer’s process to your sister. Now I’ll be pondering the visual-writing connection for the rest of the day!

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  4. says

    Very valuable insight into the writer’s ability to imagine – and the difficulties. I’ve just written a short story about a young woman in India trying to rebuild her life after her community persecuted her. It was hard to do, especially being a white male living in the UK. But as you say I assembled research, own reactions, input from friends to create an individual’s experience. And using those elements, plus my writer abilities, it was good enough to pass the scrutiny of a female Indian beta-reader that had experienced some of the prejudice first hand.

    Being a fiction writer, I can imagine things that when I was a journalist had to be factually correct.

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    • says

      Roland, congratulations on writing a story that your beta reader affirmed as realistic! For some stories, that is definitely an important step in the process–if your intent is to make it as true-to-life as possible.

      And the story sounds fascinating. Let us know when we can read it somewhere!

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  5. says

    Nicely written. Excellent strategies for putting your mind into that of a fictional character. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction and several short stories, but so far, my attempts at novel writing have bogged down. Maybe this would be good practice.

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    • says

      Thank you, JoAnne. Honestly, I find characters to be the most fun part of writing fiction. By all means, just explore them for fun and see what comes out of it. Talk to them, ask them questions, have them chat with each other, get them angry, dig deeper than they want to go, etc. See what position they’re sitting in when they talk to you. Let them surprise you. Just make sure you do it all with a pen in your hand or your fingers at the keyboard.

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  6. says

    That’s the job: research plus imagination, plus writing skills.

    And then the readers will tell you if it resonates with them – so you have to add the perspective of a huge number of people, most of whom have NOT had the experience, either.

    And occasionally some who have. As Roland’s beta reader (above) had.

    And then you can only hope that, if you have major bobbles, someone will tell you (preferably BEFORE you publish) – and you can correct them.

    As Ogg, storyteller around a fire, when recounting his hunting exploits with the woolly mammoth, had the normally uncommunicative Bogg (who also went on the hunt, but isn’t a storyteller) to point out when he wasn’t telling it right.

    I hope readers/listeners keep me honest.

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    • says

      Thanks, Alicia. You’ll find out if it resonates once it’s out there, although, as you say, it’s best to get that feedback on major issues BEFORE publication. (Beta-readers like Roland’s are a great idea.)

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  7. says

    Tracy Hahn-Burkett, you have a way with words that makes your prose vivid and alive. Your essay makes me think about why writers are encouraged to read widely. (Jo Eberhardt, I had this thought before I saw your comment above that your sister is a visual artist and very creative, but not a writer or a reader.) Tracy, in your experience, you have read widely, and your bio tells us that you have also written widely. Your first novel ought to be perfectly crafted.

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  8. says

    What a great piece for me to read on this, the first morning of a writing retreat — technically, an editing retreat — during which I will work on a book written from the POVs of 2 men who lived almost 3,000 years ago in a different hemisphere from me. Imagination (esp. when combined with research) is a powerful and glorious tool.

    And against the “you can’t know” contingent, indeed, you can’t *know* another’s experience, but you can wonder, and wondering will lead to conversation, to discovery, which is surely among the purposes of any author, or anyone who shares a story (whether the story is of their experiences or their imaginings). I’m so annoyed at the conversation-ending “you can’t know” man.

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    • says

      Oh, Natalie, I’d like to read your book when you’re done…

      And yes, it’s all about wondering. It’s the famous, “What if…?” question we all need to ask and try to answer when we write. If we don’t have a good question to start out, we probably don’t have much of a story.

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  9. says

    This is a fantastic post, I love the inheren contradiction of not knowing someone else’s particular experience but knowing enough to write your own version. Fiction writers have to take those imaginative liberties, otherwise there would be no fiction to read!
    -Dana

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  10. CK Wallis says

    Writers use their imaginations and so do readers. I see the job of the writer as creating connections between those imaginations to allow the reader to experience people, places, and situations they would never likely encounter themselves. In addition to descriptive tools, we draw on emotions shared by all humans to create these connections: we don’t have to lose our own child to ‘know’ the terror and agony of the parent who has.

    When you think about it, imagination is the source of human empathy, and it seems to me that creating empathy is the most effective way for a writer to connect with a reader.

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    • says

      CK, that’s such an important point. It goes beyond story for the sake of enjoyment, which is plenty, to basic human compassion. In order to understand that we are part of a community composed of other people, to truly feel for them, we need empathy, and stories that illuminate their experiences and feelings can often shine much brighter lights in that effort than recitation of facts ever could.

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  11. says

    Thank you for this essay. I love the quote by Einstein “imagination is more important than knowledge” because it is in the realm of imagination that we work out the possibilities of what is true for our characters.

    When I was a newbie writer and was given criticism I often found myself thinking, but that’s not the way it happened. Truth is, real life is so much more complicated and messy than fiction. But in fiction we get to explore so much more of the human condition.

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    • says

      Vijaya, I think we all did that at the beginning. (What? No? Okay, well I know I did.) But the constraints of fiction, where things need to make sense in one way or another, and the possibility of imagination, where one is not confined to reality, allow thoughts to explore and investigate in ways life sometimes won’t permit. It’s almost irresistible.

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  12. says

    “You can’t know”

    Sure you can.

    If you live with that person, hear their words when they’re awake, and worse, when they’re dreaming. If you see the ghosts in their eyes, see them reach for a hand that isn’t there? If you feel the grip that crushes your hand and endure the almost inaudible, humiliated gasps when they realize you aren’t in danger, yet they’re trying to save you?

    Oh, yes, you CAN know.

    And whether or not I am thankful for that knowlegde, it is knowledge I’m using for my writing.

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    • says

      Jennifer, yes, knowing another person and going through something with another person can be enormously revealing. It’s like knowing what goes on inside his head.

      But then think about this: what did he do that took you by complete surprise?

      That can be fascinating.

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  13. says

    So true, Tracy. If we only stuck with, “Write what you know,” then MOBY DICK, HARRY POTTER + CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY would’ve never been written. Thanks!

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  14. Anjali Amit says

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

    As you say, both true and not-true. Logically a contradiction, (but whoever said real life is logical!) You don’t have to walk through fire to know that it burns, or plunge into a snowy river to know it freezes.

    I love what you say about arming yourself with research and then giving imagination free rein.

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  15. says

    Tracy. My book Hidden Evil explores the occult world of Palo Mayombe and Santeria, Afro-Caribbean cults prominent in the Southwest. It was difficult to deal with the occult characters until I found myself totally immersed in the culture. I still find it hard to pass up a cemetery. These folks practice human sacrifice, use of body parts in ritual, and the more benign folk rituals. I spent a couple of years investigating and had my life threatened in a veil reference in St. Thomas. They did not like me studying their rituals. Once I got the handle on it, the story flowed, only mine was a sixteen-year-old who became the object of a Santerio’s affections.
    I have yet to find anyone who hit it on the nose as you did in this blog/article. A great article but more importantly, a helpful article. I hope to read more of your work.
    WriterBob

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  16. Tom Witkowski says

    The great thing about being a fiction writer is that we get to ask questions to which there are no answers. And the fun comes in making up the answer. What if there were a school for wizards? What would happen if two people from rival families fell in love? What would it take to get a crabby, penny-pinching Christmas hater to change? But when we answer those questions, we always must remember what Picasso said…”Art is a lie that tells the truth.” Keeping our fiction grounded in reality. It’s a tougher trick than it sounds. But one that’s such a rewarding challenge. Thanks for the article!

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  17. says

    Wonderful article Tracy. This is a glimmering facet of writing. Telling stories we may or may not have experienced firsthand. This line perfectly sums up why I create stories.

    “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.”

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

    Warmly,
    Dede

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