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Tap into Life Changing Moments to Bring Your Fiction to Life

Life is complicated.  Within a given moment as human beings we can experience the sheer ecstasy of life’s most joyful experience and then plunge into the deepest well of sorrow or terror.  And sometimes, it’s not that extreme.  Sometimes we have a flickering moment during which good and evil intersect, where perhaps the right thing isn’t so clear, where love and hate intermingle. Moments where opposites co-exist. These are the moments – little or big – that change our lives.  These moments upend our existing paradigm – forcing us to look at the world in a new way, whether we like it or not.

Let’s go back to the old adage, “Write what you know.”  I firmly believe that in order to be an effective writer, one doesn’t necessarily need to write specifically about the experiences that she knows.  However, as a writer, one must tap into these life changing moments – the moments of emotional complexity that allow us to touch the essence of human experience.

Here’s an example:

In college, I set off on a trip to Bolivia during January.  It was with a school guided group, and we traveled to the altiplano of Bolivia’s highlands to build a community center and deliver medical assistance and public health guidance to the Aymara people.  While there, a lightning strike came down from cloudy skies and took the life of a dear friend of mine.  With impending storms sweeping across the horizon, my friend was holding a tarp to shield some townspeople from the coming rains.  With her arms raised to hold the tarp, my friend was the highest point on the plains.  The lightning struck her and traveled down to a young mother holding a baby on her lap beneath the tarp. The lives of the baby and my friend ceased instantly, but the young mother walked away from the strike physically unscathed.

Being a writer, my first instinct was to write about this experience.  The shock, the horror, the intermingling of relief at the saved life of one and the lost lives of others.  I wrote about the specifics of the event in an essay once I returned to the United States, and the piece was ultimately published in a book about the complexities of the grieving process. However, looking back, that essay should not have been published.  At the time of writing, I was too close to the subject.  The essay is littered with sappy emotion and cliche – it is raw and unpolished.  But then again, so was I – a recent college graduate who was raw and unpolished starting off in a writing career.

Today, as a more experienced writer, I would never use this specific event in my writing.  However, the unique emotions wrapped up in the event? That’s another story.  This experience created an unresolved tension in my life.  The tension between the sharp edges of a volatile world in conflict with the human need for grace and love.  It left an emotional scar that I can work to resolve or redeem in my writing.  I keep these scars carefully locked away in a special place in my heart.  Protecting them until it’s time to scratch them open and mine them for emotions.  When the time is right in a particular scene or chapter, I open up this safeguard of feelings: the fear, the anger, the sorrow, the relief, the joy, and tap into the emotional complexity that lingers from these events.

Of course, I create different experiences for my characters.  They aren’t recovering from unexpected lightning strikes or struggling through delivering a baby in the car, but they are having life defining moments in their own right.  These characters are experiencing similar emotional complexities to the ones stored up in my reserves.  Those emotions are complicated and real and universal.  When teachers tell you to “write what you know,” mine your life defining moments for emotion and they will bring your fiction to life.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Werner #

    I find it rough re-living some of my experiences to use the raw emotion in a story. I’ll imagine another person in similar circumstances instead. It takes me out of the equation while preserving the feeling. Not sure if that makes sense to you.

    February 27, 2012
    • That makes a lot of sense, Werner. I agree. You can’t put yourself back into the moment that is the most raw – but putting your characters into a completely different situation that will evoke the same emotions is when you can best utilize those life-defining moments of your own.

      February 28, 2012
  2. I so look forward to your posts. It is so true how being close to your deepest experience doesn’t help your fiction until later. The saddest stories in our lives is make the heart grieve but the imagination a little more fertile. Thank you Sara…..

    February 28, 2012
    • Thanks for being such a dedicated reader, Neel. I agree. It takes perspective to use some of life’s hardest (and happiest memories) in your writing. Using them when they are too fresh is like standing too close to a fire – it burns rather than warms you. Happy writing, Neel.

      February 28, 2012
  3. I agree Sara. Those moments surface in our writing, and should. They validate what we write about, they make it real.
    It’s like a translation… no one else can live my moment. But in my writing, my experience is explained, retold, in the language of fiction that someone else can understand and recognize.

    February 28, 2012

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