My friend recently returned from a trip to the west coast. Business carried him there, but his real mission was to gain the experience of driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, reflect a bit on his life, ponder the passing of his father just a few months ago, and work on a longer piece of fiction that he’s been sketching out for the last year or so. While he was out there, he was immersed in experience, removed from his rather provincial lifestyle on the east coast, where a lifetime of Baltimore sunrises and sunsets has made life pretty predictable.
He stepped out of his element and gained some rather rich experiences; now he has the rightful joy of doing something productive with them.
That’s the prize for writers who go after those experiences. They have a frame, a story — they have a place for all of those analogies, metaphors, and pent-up emotions that have been rattling around in their minds and scattered recklessly on the countless pages of their daybooks.
Some of these experiences we don’t ask for — the death of a loved one, a health crisis we face (or a loved one faces), or sudden situations where we are forced to make a critical decision. Did you lose your job, a victim of this horrible economy? Did your spouse leave you, letting the world know by making it “Facebook Official” and posting it in his or her latest status update? These are the experiences that no one really wants to write about. Yet, they are so genuine, so compelling, that we, as writers, feel it our duty to write. Our readers, equally compelled, simply can’t put down a good true story.
Writers, though, can’t wait for the inevitables to happen for good material. I’ve written ad-nauseum about the deaths of my father and mother, but they were such rich experiences that I had to do it. The problem is, for a long time, that’s all that I did write about. Most of the stories that we have “in” us deal with the loss of a loved one. Again — there’s nothing wrong with writing about these things. I not only support writing toward healing, I think it is a powerful community for those grieving when they can read the words of somebody else who is struggling with, working through, or emerging from the death of a loved one. And — let’s be honest. It’s one of the few things most, if not all, of us are going to face in our lifetimes. Everybody can relate on one level or another.
Some of the greatest works that have been written in the last fifty years have been personal accounts about tragedies — the Holocaust, Viet Nam, 9/11, the Persian Gulf Wars, domestic terrorism, and the list goes on. There is, sadly, no shortage of individuals who have lived through these horrific events. They need to tell their stories, not only for themselves, but for the ever-woven fabric of our country’s history. Their words are contributions to the evolving refinement of the definition of America. They cannot go unwritten, for it is another tragedy when such personal histories find a permanent, silent home six feet underground.
The experience that my friend had riding that west-coast highway was not inevitable. He took the initiative to create a new experience, a new story to carry those metaphors and emotions. This is a trend that I am seeing with younger individuals, beginning when they enter college. Many 4-year colleges and universities are requiring students to spend at least one semester abroad. If nothing else, these experiences are breaking the travel taboo that we can’t leave our borders, especially in this post-9/11 society. More young adults seem to be traveling to Europe, the UK, South America, and Africa long after that obligatory semester abroad has been fulfilled. The experiences they are obtaining are rich and should be shared, documented, woven into our American history books.
I find that it is harder for middle-agers to do this. We find that, for the most part, our lives are guided by the overbooked lives of our children or the needs of our elders. If we are not rushing to soccer fields, swim meets, and gymnastics competitions, we are fighting for our parents’ rights to receive certain medical treatments that will provide a certain quality of life that, otherwise, would be impossible. We are working two, sometimes three jobs, to make ends meet now. Our experiences, hardly tragic, are still being governed by other forces that are seemingly out of our control.
Writers, I think, need to push themselves to get out and gain those experiences, find those stories that are lurking around more corners than the trendy cafes we rush to write in. Though they do provide a better setting and a block of time to write (has a hot cup of coffee replaced the trusty 15-minute smoke break?), there’s little or no experience you get out of it.
We need to get away from our laptops, our iPads, our Droids, our desktops and meet new people, face-to-face, and hear their stories. We need to resume asking “What If?” instead of pondering “Why Me?” We need to put ourselves in places where life is breathing stories. There needs to be Intent. Direction. Purpose.
In other words, the writer’s mantra of “butt in chair” no longer means a damn thing if he doesn’t get butt out of chair and live an intended life.
Don’t wait for the experiences to come to you. Get up, get out, and find them. Then, be sure to let us all know — every last detail. We need it now, and our readers of tomorrow are depending on it.