Jul 27, 2016
Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 2
Last week we began by reading some of Whitman's writings about war before and after the Civil War. You can see how his experiences changed him and his writing. There's a difference between imagining something and actually experiencing it firsthand. This led to an interesting discussion about whether you can write authentically about something you only imagined. Especially for a speculative fiction writer, this is a valid question. Sure, you can do research about medieval sword-fighting techniques, even put on armor and get whacked with a sword, but you can never personally experience fighting a dragon. A lot of the time you try to take some experience you've had that might in some emotional or physical way resemble what you're writing about and use that. And try to do a lot of research, of course. For the story to feel real, you have to develop a knack for faking the small but crucial details that help sell the story. I feel that many fantasy and science fiction writers do this quite well, but does the subject matter mean their stories are less real than stories set in the real world?
We also talked about the anxieties writers and artists face when turning disaster and death into art. It's a sensitive subject. What if you hurt people? Trigger anxiety and bad memories? Is it disrespectful to use a disaster or even someone's personal tragedy for story fodder? Depends on how you do it, I guess? Most people don't want to bear witness to the madness that is the world today, but we're forced to. It seems like every week there's another shooting or terrorist attack, and the war in Syria and the refugee situation make the headlines almost every day. A lot of the time writing about death is the writer's way of making sense of what happened. Speculative fiction as a lens gives some distance. Maybe we fantasy and science fiction writers have it easier in that regard?
The writing assignment had us write about disaster while using some kind of constraint, like doing it in sonnet form, because many experimental and modern writers turn to traditional forms when writing about loss. An interesting and challenging exercise.
Lots to think about.
What about you guys? Any thoughts?