Monday, April 16, 2007

Writing Tip: Put Your Body Where Your Mouth Is

Writing offers us the opportunity to explore locations, emotions, and behaviors we will never experience in life. We get to climb mountains whose continents we won't ever actually touch, turn the tables--in very public ways, if we choose--on lovers who've hurt us, and conduct racy, skillful affairs with near-perfect (but not too-perfect) paramours.

But that's not all the opportunity that writing offers us.

A few years back, I was a member of a small writing group that met weekly for reading/critique. Somewhere along the way, the group of us decided that there were a handful of experiences that might work to our benefit as writers.

Sad to say, torrid illicit affairs didn't make the cut.

One of the things that did make the cut, however, was to witness an autopsy.

One of our members at the time was friends with a recently published mystery novelist and managed, through her, to get us an appointment at the coroner's office, where they agreed to put us through the same scared-straight process that drunk drivers face.

The day of our appointment, we were ushered us into a small meeting room, where we watched a video documentary detailing the adventures of various unfortunate drunk drivers.

In the worst case, a woman at a bar had accepted the offer of a ride from a would-be one-night-stand. Soon after they left the bar on his rocket-like Kawasaki, with her hugging him close from behind, the driver took the wrong half of a fork in the road.

On the good side was a freeway onramp, on the bad, a cul-de-sac. Fifty yards and ninety-plus-miles-per-hour later, he slammed into a brick wall, turning himself into a stew and cutting the top half of his passenger’s head off.

The officer on the tape described the pain of explaining to the dead woman’s husband how she had come to her end.

After the sobering film, we were given white scrubs and masks, which we put on over our street clothes, and then ushered through a cooled room filled with occupied body bags.

For a minute or so, we stood by a steel door leading to the ‘operating’ room. The group of us was nervous, and some of us were actually willing to admit it.

When we entered the large white autopsy room, we came on three stainless tables aligned perpendicular to the wall. Atop them lay three corpses in varying stages of their final physical exam. One was a Vietnam Vet who’d overdosed in his apartment and gone unmissed for several long, hot days. Another was a Santa Ana gang member who’d been shot multiple times and left to die on the beach. The third was an 80-plus-year-old woman who’d fallen in the tub, broken her hip and later died of an embolism.

You might believe that watching CSI or reading bleak horror novels would tell you enough to understand this experience—and perhaps to write about it—but you’d be wrong. If you’ve got even the slightest bit of humanity to you, there is a somber gravity to a room like this and its activities. Nothing about that feeling is effectively conveyed by the carnival act that is CSI and every novel I’ve read that touches on the subject. Even when the basic mechanical details come out right—the behavior and the tools and the smells are described correctly—the feeling doesn’t.

The point of all this rambling, I guess, is to encourage you to use every excuse you can to extend your experience. Let the fact that you call yourself a writer drive you to embrace adventures you might otherwise avoid (or maybe just ignore).

I’m not one who believes you have to have experienced something to write about it sensibly. But there is no doubt that the living of a thing will flavor your writing. And, almost inevitably, that will improve your stories.

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