Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

(February 12, 2009)

I've had a really blessed life - no broken bones, no major accidents, no bad illnesses. The only disadvantage is that sometimes I need to write about this kind of event in a character's life. Without realistic details, my writing will "lack the verisimilitude of real experience" (which is a criticism one of my college professors put on one of my stories years ago!).


What's a writer to do? Borrow from others, of course! My current project has a good example. The main character, John David, has sprained his ankle while exploring the woods around the campsite he and Maggie set up. At this point in the plot as planned, it's an important event that leads to other events. That means I can't just say, "His ankle was sprained and it hurt." I need details - what it looks like, what it feels like.

Lucky for me, as a teacher I have access to a lot of students and their experiences. During my years of teaching speech, I've heard a few speeches about sprained ankles, and I've witnessed students hobbling around as they deal with the aftermath of a sprain. So when I needed details to write about John David's experience, I turned to two of my former students to probe for details of their experiences with a sprained ankle.

Admittedly, it feels a little weird to approach a near-stranger and ask about intimate details of his/her life. But when I explained to these young people why I wanted to know, both of them were very generous with information. Both of them are athletes who've suffered multiple sprained ankles, so they had vivid memories of the experience. Kristi, a soccer player, was very specific about the swelling, discoloration, and pain involved. David, a basketball player, took a different approach, giving details of how two of his sprains happened and giving suggestions for how my character's sprain might happen. One of the things I really appreciated about their responses was that they included unique personal details. Kristi talked about how the pain made her nearly sick to her stomach, and David said he bit his shirt a lot to help him bear the pain. That's the kind of information that goes beyond dry, clinical detail; it conveys personality -- and that's exactly what a writer needs for detail to do.

I've incorporated almost everything these former students told me into the account of John David's sprained ankle, and I feel pretty confident that even though I've never had this experience myself, my description of the events will ring true. I'm most grateful for the openness of these students and their willingness to help me out. No one can experience everything directly, but as long as there is someone willing to share his/her story, at least we can experience things vicariously.

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