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The International Writers Magazine
: Communication Skills

On Processing Experience
Eric D. Lehman

My friend Ford has lived an exciting life. He can boast many of the adventures the rest of us only dream about. After spending a year in Nepal, he biked illegally across the tremendous Tibetan plateau. He hitchhiked across much of the American west, living on rice and sleeping under bridges. He tried nearly every illegal drug, just once. He sneaked into dozens of festivals and rock concerts. He pioneered great rock-climbing routes in Colorado and New Mexico.

On an archaeological dig in Nicaragua, he became involved with a young native girl who tried to convince him to smuggle artifacts to the U.S. Rebel guerillas then shut down the dig and Ford ended up having to flee the country. And yet, to the rest of the world, my friend’s varied and unique experiences shall remain forever in darkness.

Ford’s trouble is an unfortunately common one throughout history. Hundreds of Marco Polos have no doubt traveled the ancient paths and thousands of Magellans have forged new ones. But because these experiences were never written down, they were lost. Ford does take notes – "journaling" as he calls it – but never forms these copious notes into a cohesive or even fragmented narrative.

Of course, he does not have to write his own story. Marco Polo’s prison biographer did the work for him. I would gladly transcribe Ford’s tales. But the problem goes deeper. Ford cannot process his experience. He is intelligent and curious. But he lacks the ambition, focus, or analytical equipment to turn his action into meaning. What did he get out of the experience in Nicaragua? "Don’t get involved with girls in foreign countries." Hardly the stuff of legend, or even of interesting reading. Without this element, other writers can only instill their own messages onto Ford’s story, something they are better off doing with their own life-journeys.

Is this really a problem? Some would say that Ford can just wander around having adventures and neither understand nor communicate them. Plenty of us do. But this communication is a key to our humanity: to connect with others, to enrich the vaults of human experience, and to expand the limits of knowledge. As the philosopher George Santayana states in Soliliquies in England, "Only in some word or conventional image can the secret of one moment be flashed to another moment; and even when there is no one able to receive the message, or able to decipher it, at least the poet in his soliloquy has uttered his mind and raised his monument in his own eyes; and in expressing his life, he has found it."

I have another friend named Ryan who certainly has not lived the life Ford has. But he has taken elements of that ‘normal’ life and turned them into wisdom for others. He has taken assorted weight-lifting experiences and transformed them into magazine articles, attempting to teach. He has taken fairly standard college experiences and turned them into kernels of truth in a semi-autobiographical screenplay. Why bother? So that others will understand and process their own experiences better. So that maybe one scared teenager will see his movie of geek angst and know he is not alone. Will Ryan’s words change worlds? Perhaps not, but what is important is the endeavor. Imagine what the mad voyager Ford could do if he had the processing and communication abilities Ryan does.

To be successful writers and human beings, we must have three elements in place. First, we must live life fully and suck red juice from the heart of the world. Second, we must be able to process this experience, to truly grasp the tuitions of life. Third, we must be able to articulate this secret significance and knowledge to others. Only then can an individual human life connect and resonate with the rest of us.
© Prof Eric Lehman October 2004
Eric is an English professor at the University of Bridgeport and has traveled extensively throughout the world.  He has been previously published by various web journals, such as August Cutter, Niederngasse, Simply Haiku, and of course Hackwriters.

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