Monday, February 7, 2011

Author Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) spoke to my classes today

Author Mark Bowden lives near my school and generously devoted some time to speak with my classes today.

Since we did not record what author Mark Bowden shared with our kids today, I took some detailed notes for myself which I'll share here.  While I am being as accurate as I can, I am still paraphrasing based on my notes.  Some of Bowden's opening statement focused on the journey he experienced while writing Black Hawk Down, but I chose to note what he said about the craft of writing in general.

As I remember it, he began with the statement that his job is telling true stories.  One of the most important parts of telling true stories is getting out into the world and finding out things for yourself--firsthand.  He suspects that 90% of information which exists out there (namely internet) is recycled.  When someone else is reporting or sharing information it becomes recycled, redistributed, and distorted.  We can't put enough stress on the importance of finding out what we can firsthand.

One of his anecdotes about Black Hawk Down concerned a soldier named Brad.  As he interviewed Brad it struck him that Brad didn't share everything in his experience.  Bowden had heard from other soldiers that during a moment of high stress Brad refused to go back out into battle--he told his commanding officer that he would not, could not, go back.  Brad had just held a close friend as he bled to death in his lap while rushing him back to base.  When Bowden asked Brad about this event, Brad confirmed it, but then asked if it was necessary to tell that part of the story.  Bowden told my students that not only was it necessary, but it was the real part of Brad's story.  It was the core of all of it.  Brad didn't want to tell Bowden the story because he was ashamed of his fear.  Bowden explained, on the contrary, your fear illustrates just how terrifying this battle was...and at the same time it also illuminates just how remarkable it is that you (Brad) changed your mind and marched back out there to fight, through your fear.  And there are soldiers, human beings, sons, brothers, daughters, sisters, mothers, fathers, who do this everyday.  Yes, we have to tell it!  It is the story.

So many young writers today have access to Google or other search engines and simply sit down to write stories without doing anything on their own.  What happens then is this--they have nothing new to say.  If you want to be a writer, get up.  Get up out of your chair.  Get up and get out of your house and speak to people.  When you can bring yourself to have a conversation with someone face to face about something they experienced, you will be filled with things to tell people.  He called the writers who do not do that by the name of "Thumbsuckers"--and thumbsuckers never get any of the rewards of learning something new.

We started a Q&A with the classes--the following are Bowden's thoughts based on their questions:

How did you become a writer?
I didn't need anybody's permission to be a writer.  The only way to write stories is to do it. 

There is nothing interesting to write about right here where I grow up.  Where are the stories for a kid like me?
Everything in the world happens right here.  Stories are everywhere.  Have you ever driven along a rode and seen a dead deer?  Driving these country roads are more dangerous than driving in New York and Philadelphia.  There's a story in that.  There are people being born, dying, struggling to eat, falling in love, sideswiping a fence in a car.  There are stories everywhere--all you have to do is be open to it.

How did you learn how to write stories?
I learned how to write stories by reading stories.  Mostly, you learn by doing.  I am still teaching myself how to do it.

How do you create dialogue is you weren't there to hear it in the first place--how much flexibility do you give yourself to make it up?
I will allow myself to create dialogue if it is the best memory of the people who spoke it originally...which is never going to be 100%.  What is ideal is if it were recorded, but if not, then I trust those who were there.  The key is, you have to let the reader know how you know it.  I won't make it up.

What if you were writing about something in the 1800s?
This is hard work.  Writing is mental effort.  It requires a tremendous amount of energy to focus your mind to do it.  You commit yourself to a lot of legwork, but it is really really fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment