Writing is not just about recording thoughts. Writing begins with experiences to think about. Here is an example from WWII Sgt. Walter Bernstein, an ordinary man writing about freedom fighters in a Yugoslav village. From YANK Magazine, 1946:
Two friends whom the staff had thought were dead showed up. They had been in a concentration camp for three years, and finally escaped and made their way to the Partisans. One of them is a man of 27 and the other is 35, but they look much older. The younger man talked between mouthfuls of food. He ate deliberately, almost shyly, arranging the food carefully with his fork before raising it to his mouth, then chewing it with great thoroughness. The younger man had also been in the notorious Ustachi camp at Jasenovac in Croatia. This is the camp that is known for burning men alive; it’s record is 1,500 in one night.
Supper consists of a plateful of string beans with pieces of Vienna sausage. There is also a large can of chowchow (mixed pickles in mustard sauce). The Partisans need chowchow like they need a hole in the head, but they regard it as simply some peculiar American dish and eat it. After supper everyone sits around and sings. The songs come naturally; they are beautiful songs, simple and immediate. There is one song about their rifles, and a song about one of their national heroes killed in battle, and one addressed to Marshall Tito by the girls in which they ask “When will you send the boys home?” and Tito answers “It is not yet time, it is not yet time.”
Thank you Sgt. Bernstein. I hope you survived the war.
Here is another from a well known author, then Pvt. Irwin Shaw, aboard a train in Egypt. Also from Yank Magazine.
The train for Palestine pulled out of Cairo station slowly, to the accompaniment of wailing shrieks from the platform peddlers selling lemonade, cold coffee, pornographic literature, grapes, old copies of Life and flat Arab bread.
The train was long and crowded, and it had seen better days. It had been standing in the wild Egyptian sun all morning and part of the afternoon, and it had a very interesting smell.
It carried Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen, Palestinians, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Australians, Americans, French, Senussi, Bantus, Senegalese; it carried Egyptian civilians, Arab civilians, Palestinian civilians; it carried generals, colonels, lieutenants, sergeants and privates – and it carried bugs. The generals and lieutenants it carried first class. The sergeants it carried second class. The privates it carried third class. The bugs it carried all classes.
I like these paragraphs written during a war fought 70 years ago. The images stick with me. And I could never have written them. Because I cannot share what I have never experienced.
So, in the hope of starting a discussion, do you think you actually have to get out and experience life in order to write well?