Saturday, April 2, 2011

Understanding the Experiences of Others

I like to write secondary world fantasy. Not just because I'm a worldbuilding fiend, but because I like the idea of starting fresh. A secondary world gives me the ability to construct a world that I can relate to. I can relate to every character, every culture and every government because they are all part of me, of my experience.

I like this not because it provides the opportunity to revel in my experience, but because it gives me a starting point to explore ideas. My experience is already my starting point. However much it grows or doesn't, it will always be my default. All humans are shut in their own little world; the individual experience is not (currently) downloadable. It is locked in a person's head and every human must start from their own point.

But, what I can do is widen my experience--both in the world and in my head. I expand my experience in the world by putting myself in different situations and meeting diverse people. So, for me, it only makes sense to do the same in my fiction.

In my writing I set up a situation derived from my own experience, with characters also derived from the same, because I cannot do anything else. As wide as I have tried to make my experience (and thus my characters and situations) they will always begin as my experience.

But here's the best part. They grow!

When I conceived of Beshauna Alayen from Born of This Soil, I did it specifically because she is outside my personal experience. She is not a person who likes change. She will do things the same way every time. She is so attached to the ground beneath her feet that she cannot imagine who she would be without it--and the traditions and history of her people--to inform her identity.

I have no idea what that would be like.

I was always moving around as a kid and I didn't have a very wide family experience to go by, let alone cultural traditions other than the ones you can't avoid just by being a "white girl" in America. Finding my own identity has been more of a struggle because of this.

Beshauna does not have that struggle. She defaults to her cultural position even when I don't. And when I'm not true to her, she tells me. She--a fictional construct--teaches me. Through her, I have a better (not perfect, but better) understanding of what that's like.

I write to explore and to learn. When I'm writing a character who is distinct from myself (for whatever reason), I'm not always going to get it right. I always try my hardest and do my best, but I will make mistakes, and I will learn from them, and do it better the next time. Doing it wrong is often necessary while learning to do it right.

Not everyone writes for these reasons, or sees things this way, but it is my way. And I'm well aware that Beshauna's cultural norms also come from my experience and therefore even that is not truly something outside myself. But, that's the secret, nothing really is. At the most basic level, everything that a human being can express in a given situation, can be expressed by any human being who is put into that situation. What path that expression takes is a matter of individual experience and perspective.

I will never totally understand the experience of even one other person, no matter how alike or different. That doesn't mean I should try, but there will always be a disconnect, because I am not that person. Empathy can help to narrow the gap, as can imagination, but there will always be some distance--even if it's infinitesimal--between me and anyone else. The wider my experience, the narrower the gap. I don't think the barrier of my own experience can ever be completely broken down, or that it should be. I am who I am because of my experience; I don't want to lose my individuality. I want to enrich it with the knowledge of what could be.

And hopefully, out of all of it, I will pull a story that is entertaining and thought provoking. At least, that's my goal.


Celebc├╣en said...

Hi Mary :-)

I really like this post, because it speaks of something which is very near to me. I mean… the ‘other’ fascinates me, and my writing, especially lately, has gone down that way a lot.

I’m not sure I’m in the same position as you. I do think that what we write always comes from us and our experience. In a way, I think this is necessary, because otherwise how could you write of it? How could you be involved enough to grab at the matter and try to make it tell something to you, something you’ve never really think out? You’re right there: writing is a way to discover, just like reading is.
So maybe this is why in my writing I like to explore different perspectives. I started with fantasy, building imaginative worlds, I went on imagining those worlds base of historical facts and environments, then I came to ethnic imaginative worlds, and – well, you know, Ghost Trilogy (my WIP) is a speculative fiction set in a multicultural, multiethnic historical setting.

This was my path, and you know, it does come from my personal experience. I’m always been lucky enough to have the possibility to come in contact with different cultures from a very early age. When I was a teenager, my best friend was a Cambodian girl fled from the war in her country, even if my more important experience in this matter was probably my one year stay in Dublin: in the little flat we five girls shared there was a representative of five different nations (and languages), three cultures (and religions) and two continents.
Well, I think I probably have a natural inclination for this kind of relations, but my experience has definitely pushed me that way ;-)

Where I don’t completely agree with you is that there will always be a barrier between my experience and my feeling and what other people experience and feel. I mean, sure, your right, every person is a person, and individual, and no other person can completely understand or share what that person feels. But I don’t see it as a barrier. I mean, it is supposed to be that way: we are different because differences enrich, because this way we can learn from each other. Even if we don’t have the possibility to make an experience ourselves, we can learn from people who did make that experience.
This is the reason why lately I prefer ‘real world’ and ‘real cultures’ to worlds and cultures I make up myself: to write of a culture which is different from mine, I must know it, I must try to understand it, if maybe I will never share it. It is challenging, because it pushes my ‘barriers’, as you called them. In a way or another, it forces me to go beyond, to reach for something I have no control upon, something which shaped itself over time and places, and which I have to grasp, and cannot change. Which is the exciting part for me ;-)

So, I think where I disagree with you is that, in my opinion, writing is not about barriers, but rather about reaching out :-)

Botanist said...

Well, you had me at "secondary world fantasy". I've not heard the term before and had to follow a few Google search results to find an explanation. Obviously my ignorance showing, because it is in such widespread use that many forums talk about it assuming that everyone else knows what it means :D

With that out of the way, I can totally relate to what you're saying. I write sci-fi, set firmly in our own galactic neighborhood but so far future that Earth is long forgotten so it might as well be another universe. I love the freedom of starting afresh, and I've spent a long time trying to get to know my characters as they develop in unexpected ways on the page.

Marion Sipe said...

@Sarah - Hey there! I think that writing is my way of understanding things, of exploring not just the things that happen in my life, but the things that haven't.

The Ghost Trilogy rocks! How's it going?

Well, maybe barrier isn't the right word. What I mean is that place, the demarcation between objective reality and the subjective perception. The unconscious always filters the information it gives to the conscious, and while you can train your thought patterns with repetition and experience, but it's always going to be there, you know?

But I do see what you're saying!

@Botanist - I think I first heard of "secondary worlds" during NaNo last year, actually, but it kinda stuck with me. I love that, too. I think that's why I love worldbuilding so much. Also because you can create something and still not really understand it. Eventually, you work it over and over and over and hopefully it sinks into your head, you know? :D