About Writers, blogging

Get Off Y’re Butts and Write!

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?


23 thoughts on “Get Off Y’re Butts and Write!

  1. Good question, GD. Jane Austen is often cited as someone with little life experience who nonetheless wrote great novels. So I don’t think you have to a Mailer or a Hemingway in that respect. Sure, Austen’s novels don’t range out of what she observed and analysed, but the finesse of her writing makes up for that. But thankfully there are writers who’ve seen a lot more of the world and put it into their books. Otherwise we’d just be reading about tea and cakes in English country houses. On another note, that extract from Walter Bernstein is superbly written – could be George Orwell.

    Liked by 2 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      Ha! Thanks, Curtis, for making me look up Walter Bernstein, of whom Wikipedia says:

      Walter Bernstein (born August 20, 1919) is an American screenwriter and film producer who was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios in the 1950s.

      In February 1941 Bernstein was drafted into the U.S. Army. Eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant, he spent most of World War II as a correspondent on the staff of the Army newspaper Yank, filing dispatches from Iran, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and Yugoslavia.

      Bernstein currently serves as a visiting instructor and screenwriting thesis adviser at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Department of Dramatic Writing.


  2. mimispeike says:

    Real lived experience is essential, or else in-depth research combined with what you know of human nature. As an illustration teacher told us again and again, do your research. You can’t make it up.

    The things I’ve dug out of research are a hundred times better than what I could have invented myself. Case in point: I had my assassination episode eighty percent written, and it was good. Then I discovered John Dee, presenting opportunity magnitudes superior in terms of delightful nonsense.

    I mine my life for hopes, fears, and reactions. That’s why my husband says, you’re writing an autobiography here. He’s right. I’ve known it for years. I never told him so. He sees it for himself.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Are you suggesting Jeff Lindsay is, or has been, a vigilante serial killer? Or Vince Gilligan was narcissistic, and either a cartel drug lord or terminally ill meth cook? Or J.R.R. Tolkien lived in a hole in the ground or had megalomaniacal tendencies?

    My opinion is that a writer needs an excellent imagination, an ability to empathize, and — as Mimi says — the willingness to do lots and lots of research.

    Liked by 1 person

    • GD Deckard says:

      Well, Jeff Lindsay is channeling Jeffry P. Freundlich for who knows what nefarious reason.
      And Vince Gilligan has confessed, “I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something.” God only knows what that’s about.
      I’m unaware of J.R.R. Tolkien’s living arrangements after WWI, but he did, in fact, inhabit a hole in the ground in the form of a captured German dugout during the Battle of the Somme.
      Just sayin’.


  4. mimispeike says:

    Many things have to be invented, there’s no other way. But the interactions of human – or otherwise – creatures has to be based on solid psychology. Not the psychology you read in a textbook, the psychology you’ve lived, it’s the little feeling-of-truth moral tics and squirms and bombast and denied sorrows, admitted only to oneself, that make a story come to life.

    Create a great character and then animate him/her by putting yourself in their shoes. Use what you have stored up in you, but at some point you let go, think like they think, not like you think, allow them to steer the craft.

    Cobble your Frankenstein, shock him alive, and get the hell out of the way.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I apologize, GD. I didn’t think I needed to stipulate, “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, not yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

    Liked by 1 person

      • I did see your edited response above. Each example certainly shows prodigious imagination. (Lest you ascribe the life of a meth cook to Vince Gilligan, his own father described him as a “kind of a studious-type young man, and he liked to read, and he had a vivid imagination”, and film producer Mark Johnson said he he “was the most imaginative writer I’d ever read”.) Even by your own account, they each wrote about experiences unlike their own. Imagination, empathy, and research. Just sayin’. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Perry Palin says:

    I have just begun to reread The Earth is Enough by Harry Middleton, a true story made richer by fiction. Middleton lived the story; his experience was critical. but is wasn’t enough alone. Middleton was sensitive to the shapes, colors, and smells around him, and to the emotions and motivations of his characters. And he puts this down on the page as a first rate storyteller.

    Experience is important in the way Mimi says, “the little feeling-of-truth moral tics and squirms and bombast and denied sorrows, admitted only to oneself, that make a story come to life.” I have been flattered by readers who believed my own stories are autobiographical. They are not true stories. They are fiction informed by my exerience, my observation of places and people and events, and a developing (I hope) sense of how to use these to make the stories real for the reader, at least for a little while.

    To make our fictional characters real we have to give them those tics and squirms, and how better to do this than to lend them ours?

    Do we “have to get out and experience life in order to write well?” I don’t know if we have to, but it sure helps.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    To me, a story is not events, a story is what characters think of events, how they react to them. We have all experienced pain and terror and hunger and discouragement and we can all extrapolate from that. Observation and research are not the only way.

    Another thing my illustration teacher told us: his process was to take photographs, project them on mylar tacked to a wall, and draw on the image, creating preliminary studies for paintings. Someone said to him, you’re not drawing, you’re tracing. He replied, you do it, then. (He was a nationally known illustrator with many big-deal covers, including TIME Magazine, among his credits.) Visual editing skills were still needed, and a style developed, and judgement honed, that endlessly troublesome what to leave in, what to leave out, as someone (Bob Seeger?) put it.

    I would say that observation and research are the tracing part of writing. They get you to a certain point. Observation doesn’t (generally) give you the interior aspects that are so vital, you pull that out of your own way of dealing with the world. Then the hard work begins. Canny decisions about how to handle that coming-at-you-every-which-way material, what to leave in and what to leave out, are what turns a piece of reportage into a piece of art.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    At first I thought that this was an exhortation to fill our blog queue. I’ll get on it.

    I’m in my hard hat and work boots at the moment, pounding away on my website. I have only the bones in place. And some of the text, and the text styled. Borrowed art is dummied in to judge a layout. The first page has only a header and footer. Hit the menu to move between pages.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. GD Deckard says:

    I like what I see so far on your website, Mimi. It made me click around hoping to see more. Is this website going to be your published work? Cool if so, but if so, wow you’ve given yourself a lot to finish.
    Still, if you can create a website that serves the same purpose as publishing, you may have something new. Not sure how the revenue model would work. Hell, I’m not even sure what you have in mind but I am intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. mimispeike says:

    My plan is to post the thirty-thousand-word novella, and sell books one, two and three as they come ready to go. And to use the website as a bait to join a kickstart site, or start a fund-me myself, to raise the prodution costs for a hard-copy publish of the children’s books (which could be e-published) and the paper doll book (which certainly cannot be).

    Yes, this is a monster project. GD, that’s been my big problem all my life. I can’t do anything simple.

    The novella is finished. I just have to plunk it in. Fifteen chapters, one tailored-to-the-action spot art per, all pages with spot art in the background/side bar. The background will be repeated page to page, with modest changes/ additions. It’s not as gargantuan a task as it looks.

    I’m hoping for a result that will go viral. At the least, I’m having a good time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. mimispeike says:

    That will be handing out my bumper stickers to everyone you know.

    I’m tempted to do a Zero Mostel/Producers thing: everyone who displays my sticker on their bumper (send me a photo) gets a one percent share in my literary estate. Think it’ll fly?

    Liked by 1 person

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