Today, while I was studiously putting off the critiques I have to write for tomorrow, I came across this video on TED talks. It’s a short presentation given by Ric Elias, who was a passenger on the plane that went down on the Hudson river back at the beginning of 2009. His presentation is about the realizations he made when he thought he was going to die, and how the experience changed his life.
This talk struck me particularly because I once wrote a story about the Hudson river crash. It was a short story, written for one of my senior capstone classes (ENGL 484), that focused on a particularly petty woman who made many of the same realizations Mr. Elias did while the plane was crashing, but then went back to her shallow ways only a few weeks afterward. The point was suppose to be that even the most profound, literally earth-shaking life lesson can’t change somebody who is unwilling to see her own flaws. It is not the best story I have ever written, and so I will not be posting it here (maybe someday, if I get around to fixing several unrelated flaws in the narrative), but it still raises a question.
Obviously, Mr. Elias is the authority on the subject. He was on the plane that day, and it served as a wake-up call to him, and he has since improved his life and his relationships with the people in it. I was not on the plane that day, and nor have I ever been on a crashing plane, or any other situation that would have brought me as close to death as he was (aside from a few ill-advised attempted street crossings in Australia, of course). So the question is this:
Do I have the right to put a character in his shoes? What’s more, do I have a right to put a character in his shoes, and so completely subvert the ultimate message he drew from the experience?
After quite a bit of reflection on the issue, I’ve decided that I do. Admittedly, I was a bit hesitant to come to this conclusion, because I don’t want it to seem like I think I know better than Mr. Elias, as I certainly do not. Therein lies the danger of writing about real-life events–there is always somebody more closely tied to it than you are, and there’s a good chance they’ll disagree with you. I don’t want to disregard his experience when I say this, but I stand by my narrative, because his story is the story of only one person. It is my job as a writer to try to imagine all the other possible stories and what they mean–the stories of the people who didn’t have epiphanies, and thus didn’t get invited to do an inspirational talk.
I am also comforted by the realization that, without sharing his experience, I still managed to write a story that agreed with him, at least in part. Yes, I created a character who reacted to the situation in the exact opposite way he did, but she is not a character the audience is intended to sympathize with. She is blind and unresponsive to the world around her, and ultimately the story is a warning to not be like her, and not to waste time trying to change people who are. If anything, it is making the same point Mr. Elias is, if only in a much more roundabout way.
What do you think? Have you ever written a story you weren’t fully qualified for? How do you feel about it?
BotG prologue and chapter one re-written and submitted to professor…and because the re-write is now the working draft, we’re back down to 5,382 words. Balls.