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Experience Isn’t Our Only Teacher: Writing Tools That Lend Authenticity

As a war-literature author, I frequently face questions about authenticity. Readers want to know: What authority do you have in this field? How did you convey war without experiencing it? These questions face writers of all genres: “What right do you have to write about X?” At the heart, lies a debate about permission, but I believe that debate stems from limited principles. Experience is not the only teacher, and thank goodness for that, because our lives depend on our abilities to imagine.

In 2015, I spoke to Air Force Academy cadets studying my book of short stories, Flashes of War. “Do soldiers ever get angry at you for writing about war?” more than one cadet asked. You’d think I’d have my response down pat. But the moment was important, and my heart thrummed in my chest. I took a deep breath and explained:

While researching Flashes of War, I used images, quotes, and facts as a bridge to write contemporary, realistic, literary fiction. The more I immersed myself in research, the more I experienced what I call “moments of disconnect.” Holding an image of refugees without legs in one hand, and soldiers in basic training in another, I often felt speechless—a writer without words. Listening to a documentary on Iraqi civilians, one of whom said, “Since my brother died, I cannot taste my tea. Since my brother died, I cannot taste anything,” I felt stunned. What would it feel like to be so ravaged by grief that you lost your sense of taste? I didn’t personally know, but I could imagine that feeling through story, and as long as I remained precise and curious, I believed my fiction could read “as true” or “truer than” real life.

I told the cadets that experiencing these moments of disconnect prompted me to imagine exactly the right words and scenarios that might bring my readers to such a place of disconnect as well. When we pause—when we are shocked or curious or uncertain or disbelieving—a space opens up. In that space, new understanding can arise. Whether I’m writing about war or about my Appalachian backyard, I’m always angling for that stillness, that fertile ground. I also referred the cadets to Roxana Robinson’s fine essay for The New York Times, “The Right to Write.”

When I stopped speaking, the room felt full and still. My heart hadn’t calmed down, but my body felt alive, ready. I took a few more breaths. Had I persuaded them that the imagination is key to our survival as a species? That experience isn’t the only teacher? I don’t know. But I do know that what could have been an argument, instead became an opportunity.

I took it. And I kept talking.

“How did we get to this place as a nation?” I asked. “Have we always been so literal? When did discipline become more important than the imagination?” A few cadets shifted in their seats. They were listening. Their entire lives were the epitome of discipline, from the tips of their shoes to their daily drills. They knew discipline. I continued: “When did the imagination take a back seat in classrooms, in teacher trainings, in tactical military training? The imagination isn’t something to fear! Life without it, indeed, a military run by anyone without it, is damn near the scariest thing I can think of.”

The room was silent, but it was the kind of silence I’d grown to love—a moment of disconnect. I didn’t have answers to these questions either, but now we were meeting in the middle. Now we could decipher new truths, together.

Writing actually has a lot in common with serving one’s country. Both require empathy, integrity, skill, and, yes, the imagination. At the end of the day, nobody owns the copyright on these skills, but we writers can use these and other “tools” to lend our work authenticity. 

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Katey Schultz’s story collection, Flashes of War, was awarded IndieFab Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews and received a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America. She has won more than half a dozen flash-fiction contests, been awarded writing fellowships in eight states, and is currently working on a novel. Ten years ago, Katey founded Maximum Impact, a mentoring service that provides transformative online curricula for the creative-writing process, helping writers articulate precise language and authentic meaning in their work. Explore her resource guides, ecourses, and writing at www.kateyschultz.com.

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