Distilled Elements of Experience
Putting Yourself into The Stories You Read
Can you see yourself, the good or the bad, in the lives of fictional characters? When you read novels or even watch TV or film, do you see yourself in the characters who live out their lives in the pages or on the screen?
Identification is one of the benefits of reading. It taps our imagination on the shoulder and points to the public or hidden parts of who we are. Sometimes we’re aware of them, and other times we can be surprised by what’s revealed.
If you’ve read Reginald Rose’s ‘Twelve Angry Men’ you’d be familiar with the cast of nameless characters. I don’t think many of the readers these days would have much first-hand experience of being a juror in a small room in New York City during the 1950s. No. So, how can people who read the play see parts of themselves in the jurors, and maybe even in the periphery characters such as the accused or the witnesses? We look at what’s universal in the characters’ situations, personality or even the characters’ physical appearance.
And if the characters themselves are not initially familiar, then the setting most likely is. Who hasn’t been stuck in a small room on a stinking hot day feeling like you’re not getting anywhere? The same goes for readers of Harry Potter, who clearly can’t have any real experience with being a wizard-in-training at an elite magical school, but who would have a universal idea of school and the experience of finding yourself in a strange new place surrounded by people who are more comfortable than you are.
As a writer, I’m drawn to these kind of universal experiences, these feelings of familiarity. You could call them distilled elements of experience, except that does sound a bit hipster and possibly meaningless! When I talk about distilled elements of experience, I’m talking about emotions and a sense of place that we can all tap into and recognise.
It's bordering on a cliché to say that you should write what you know, and in my case it’s difficult to find experiences of throwing lightning across the room or blasting atoms through solid walls.
Behind him, columns of concrete exploded outward. Chunks scattered past him, knocking his legs and skittering ahead of him. He kept running, pushing himself, leaping over the larger chunks and looking ahead for the police- men. He could see a group of them at the end of the square, huddled cautiously near a burning car. There were helicopters in the sky too, but they were all too far away. Behind him, Castus stormed out into the open. The air was still hazy, almost grainy with the after-effects of the explosion. Part of Dan hated to think about the possibility of the air being polluted with the atoms of his exploded father, but it was something he just couldn’t keep out of his mind.
A wave of heat slammed into his back as he ran, smashing him to the ground face first and rupturing his belly wound again. He pulled himself forward, reaching out for the twisted metal of a bench, knowing that Castus was capable of unleashing more than a concussive heat wave. Last year, Dan had watched a television report featuring Castus and the other Knights laying waste to an entire fortress somewhere in northern Africa. Now he knew Castus was playing a game. The darkness he’d seen in the hero’s face wanted something more than an arrest. Fear plagued Dan’s body and he clutched for the sundered bench, not wanting to be found helpless and alone out in the square. His nose was bleeding, gushing out, but he couldn’t stop it. He pulled himself along the bench, catching sight of Castus as he stepped closer, glowing so white it hurt to look.
The Miranda Contract, Kalamity Press)
Instead of writing about what I literally know, I can tap into my experiences and emotions as well as those I’ve observed. When I write about Dan being pursued by the sun-god Castus I tap into memories of being followed by a group of menacing older boys in storm water drains in Ballarat when I was ten years old, a feeling of growing dread and a sense of the inevitable. Luckily, I didn’t have to dodge blasts of solar energy and the police. There’s a lot of raw emotions from childhood and it’s no secret that writers draw upon that reserve frequently. Childhood is a time where truly amazing and terrible things happen.
Everything is so much bigger.
Can you imagine a time when you were walking through the darkness as a young person?
At sixteen I remember walking halfway across the city in the dark hours of early morning: in love and feeling amazing but also terrified that I’d be jumped on my way home. Later, at twenty-one, I remember walking alone in New Orleans, feeling incredibly free and independent while also feeling like I was being stalked by hustlers – and, well, I was. Maybe I shouldn’t have been wearing the Hard Rock Café t-shirt which marked me as a tourist. Later, still, at thirty I walked the streets of London to catch a very early train but the feelings were mostly a sense of freedom, only tinged with a bristling nervousness. Even now, as a man in my forties, walking alone in the dark always brings emotions to the surface. Emotions are powerful and can pull you towards a sense of optimism or backward to darker pessimistic thoughts.
One of the most peaceful places I like to be is under the stars of a night sky. You feel so small and also so large. It puts things into perspective. When I lived in Narrawong it was the sky that gave me inspiration and peace – a sense of being alone and connected at the same time.
Darkness forces us into a solitary moment. We’re cut off from a lot of the senses we take for granted, and have to rely on others. It’s a kind of sensory deprivation thing – an opportunity to contemplate.
The sounds of the highway were well behind them, muffled by the rain and distant rumblings of thunder. Dan knew the storm would hit soon. He could feel the fury building across the bay behind him, hidden by the trees and the darkness of night. Ahead of him, Miranda held her shoes by her side as she walked barefoot towards the light of the house. Her pace hadn’t changed at all, despite the mud and uneven road surface. She hadn’t really said anything since leaving the car. Dan followed behind her.
The house was his house. Once upon a time.
Miranda stopped at the gate and looked around, pushing the strands of wet hair out of her eyes. Dan looked past her to the house. He could only see the one light on, the one in the laundry, but he knew she was home. The garden either side of the path was wild with herbs and discarded junk. He was embarrassed by the sprawl and hurried past Miranda, striding towards the door and hoping the whole night would hurry up and move on.
He rapped on the security door.
Eyes closed, he waited. How many times had he tried to get away from this place, he wondered. How many times had he dreamed of running away, of pretending to be someone else, living a normal life?
The Miranda Contract, Kalamity Press
In my novel, The Miranda Contract, Dan returns to Narrawong to escape, to recharge his batteries (literally). The place is not named, but I know it well, and even if the reader hasn’t been to the South West coast of Victoria they might know of a similar setting of bush and ocean. When Dan enters the water in the early hours of morning, it’s the sense of returning to a childhood memory that allows him to rest and recharge. His life is falling apart but the connection to the land of his youth gives him hope.
The water was freezing, like it always was along the south- west coast of Victoria. Locals laughed at the tourists who stood along the bluff, shivering in their beanies and fleece. They laughed and then swept into the dark water like seals, wetsuits or rash vests depending on how much they had to prove. Even with a full steamer, the water was usually too cold for most.
Dan sat on his board beyond the break, alone in his boxer shorts; bare legs either side of the board. He watched the silver line of the beach, waves crashing in white bursts, while the currents gently tugged at his legs, pulling him out further. It wasn’t much of a current but a part of him wanted to lie back and let the ocean drag him away from the land, away from Miranda and the mess of his life.
The Miranda Contract, Kalamity Press
There are universal moments that connect people. The first, awkward signs of attraction. Confrontations with the past that we’ve tried to hide from. A desire to run away and hide from our problems. The disconnect between children and their parents or guardians – “No one understands me!”
There is a sense of Narrawong in my writing, and Portland too – but it’s my emotional connection to these places, the way they’ve left their mark on me that transfers to the reader. People might read the stories and imagine their own country towns, their own beaches or rivers. It’s never explicitly referred to Narrawong or Portland. It’s a fictionalised land.
And that’s an important thing to remember if you’re a writer.
Restrain yourself from naming things – smooth away the distinct edges and make the specific, more universal.
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