jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,
jimvanpelt
jimvanpelt

The Local, the Exotic and a Sense of Self Worth

A problem I've brought up before in young writers, particularly high school writers but also to a lesser extent many newbies of whatever age, is the problem with the material they write about.

So many new writers choose to write about the stuff farthest away from them, and because of this they write unconvincingly.  Their imaginations and experience are so far from what they are writing about that they can't create a convincing fictional world.  The stories fail.

So, why is this?  I think the problem is the relationship between the local, the exotic and a sense of self worth.  High school writers often seem to feel that their own lives are boring, and, by extension, that anything they care about is also boring, so they write about things that are not out of themselves.  For example, my students live in or near Fruita, Colorado.  For them, Fruita is the epitome of podunk, USA.  They're embarrassed by the concrete T-Rex in the middle of the park in downtown.  They find nothing interesting in our local holiday, "Mike the Headless Chicken Festival."  The fact that the town is on the edge of The Colorado National Monument, a vista of soaring sandstone walls and shadowed canyons doesn't effect them in the least.

Fruita is "local," and therefore boring.

In a similar way, their own experiences are also "local" and boring.  What they know about love from their own crushes, their yearning looks across crowded parties, their heated text messages filled with subtext and hope, they believe are uninteresting to anyone else.  Their fears, dreams, their entire lives and the insights and questions those lives have given them are dull to them, and not fit to be brought to their writing.  They have "nothing to write about," as they tell me.

So what they write about instead is the exotic, the lives of people who are not themselves in every way possible, and the places those people live, which are any of the places that are not Fruita.  What they don't realize is that no matter where anyone lives, whether it is Denver or New York or Paris or the Moon (if people lived there), their lives are "local" to them and boring too, unless they realize that wherever you are, that place is exotic to someone else, and no matter who you are, your life is uniquely interesting to someone else.

What all this has to do with writing fiction is that writers need to really realize the importance of their own experiences to what they are making up.  In fact, the only resources writers have about life is what they've experienced themselves, and, by extension, what they can imagine based on themselves (remembering too that we are a LOT of "selves."  I am the scared person who didn't stop at a car accident, and the brave one who held my wife's hand all through child birth, and all the other selves I have been or can imagine).  The self is the starting point, it is the filter for all other experience, and the quicker the writer realizes that, the quicker the writer will plug into the personally primal, the good stuff.

I know this is theoretical sounding and a bit new-ageish, but I think it is true.  The practical application of this insight for me is that if I want to write about something imaginary--like right now I'm writing a fantasy story about a young man on a hike from one valley to another to meet his bride to be--I have to look inward to my own experiences about hiking (what does it feel like to go uphill for a long ways?  What does mountain air smell like?  What do I see when I'm in the mountains?  etc. through the other senses), and what might going on this kind of mission feel like internally?  (What does sexual anticipation feel like?  What does nervousness feel like? etc.).

I remember Ray Bradbury saying that over time he has sat down and made lists of mostly nouns about images and memories from his life.  Things like THE CROWD, THE LAKE,  THE BABY, THE RAVINE, etc., and that he's been writing from those lists ever since with sometimes more than one story per list item.  I love Bradbury, and I think he's very wise about where the material comes from.  I've learned a lot at his knee.

Bradbury said it in his way, and I translated it this way for me:I have to value and use both my experiences and imagination.  I certainly cannot cripple myself by a diminished sense of self worth.
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