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?  


  1. Thank you for telling us about the course; I am too overworked just now: the timing is off.

    George Orwell, probably in his essay on Rudyard Kipling, said that you can't write of war if you have been in one. I think he meant you can't write commercially, or a genre series.

    I believe it was after the civil war that people wrote of "soldier's heart" which today we could call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps I should make excuses for society having denial, but I won't, and so I am still angry that it wasn't recognized in the survivors of the Vietnam War for the longest time.

    If you pick the War of the Worlds off the shelf (the good guys win) the last couple pages or so is about the narrator having PTSD hallucinations, including dead bodies rising. This was well before the First World War and shell shock. Of course Well knew: writers and artists have to know things society cannot handle.

    Speaking of loss, last year I finished a manuscript of poems about the War of the Worlds setting it in the present day, and as a safe tourist in England. That's one way to deal with things. My sister will recognize some of the non-tourist parts as being from my own life, but no one else will guess, not unless I tell them.

  2. Come to think of it, since you liked my Troy piece, here is my blog post: While much of it is about America's current concern with bullying, you may scroll down to my poem where I quoted Well's PTSD and wrote about the matter.
    It's the only poem of mine that I have blogged.

    1. Liked the poem! I haven't studied poetry writing, and I'm a bit intimidated by the form and structure issues, but I'm hoping to step out of my comfort zone for this course. My first assignment turned into a poem by accident.

      Too bad you don't have the time to join us; the course is really interesting and has already opened up new perspectives for me. Maybe next year?

  3. Speaking of poetry, just last week at my weekly Freewill group my prose turned into a poem after the first line. (Partly because my opening sentence had a rhythm)

    I took a poetry class in college and found that it really helped my prose: I think poetry is to prose as ballet is to dancing.

    Back when I was a student newspaper reporter I organized a two-page spread of stories written by students with disabilities. My serious "journalism-only" editor told me he didn't want the students to include any poems. I insisted anything to do with great emotions will always include poems. It's how people express their great feelings. Sometimes plain words aren't enough.

    So I think you will write more poetry before this powerful course is over.


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