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Capturing a Moment in Time

The old cliche "write what you know" has been spat upon by many writers, particularly those of us inclined toward sci-fi and fantasy. I imagine the phrase, inarticulate as it is, caught on because it gives an impression of what every writer should be aiming for, but is easier to say and remember than: "Craft an air of authenticity in your work."

I bring this up because I was startled into a memory this morning while reading Roger Ebert's review of a documentary called How to Survive a Plague, which detailed the rise of AIDS from 1980 to 1996. It just so happened that 1996 was the year in which I wrote a short story about a young boy who has AIDS from a blood transfusion and how his friends (girls, for some reason) rally around him and help him become homecoming king. I don't remember the details of the story; I didn't even remember I wrote the story until today. But after reading Ebert's review of the documentary, I started recalling my English teacher's reaction to it. Specifically, Mr. Bennett, whom I did not like, gave me a C minus, a grade so low it was absolutely unheard of in an English class. Maybe in Math that would have been acceptable, but I couldn't let it go unchallenged for English.

When I asked him to explain the grade, he said it was a lazy story and I was capable of much better. I shook my head haughtily and asked, "Should I be punished because it's easy for me to write?" He was an ugly man with a bald head and a sour disposition, and I remember his smile was creepy. But he smiled at my question, and I think he said something like: "It's not supposed to be easy, Christy. I think you should do some research on AIDS and what life is like for people with it. Then you might have a story that deserves to have your name on it."

But I was 14, so I didn't do any additional research. It never dawned on me how false, how insultingly untrue that story I wrote was. I'm glad I don't remember it, especially after reading one particular part of Ebert's review:

It was a dreadful time. Politicians did not want to be associated with the disease. Hospitals resisted admitting victims, and when an AIDS victim died, some health-care workers would place the body in a black garbage bag. Funeral homes refused to accept the corpses. "How to Survive a Plague" follows the drama with the immediacy of the video shot at the time, and some of its most fascinating scenes involve scientists from drug companies such as Merck explaining the slow growth of knowledge about the nature of the disease.

The world was still so ignorant about AIDS, so afraid of being infected by it, branded by its implications. These were fears a 14-year-old hetero girl from a lower-middle class town in the Bible belt could never understand. So now I am grown; I understand things I did not before. But sometimes I wonder if I am "getting things right." Is my description of a passive aggressive personality correct? When writing about the mentality of a suicidal person, is there relateable authenticity in my details,  or have I produced another tale of insultingly incorrect simplicity? What do you struggle with in your writing? Which details are hardest for you to write about: those that are too close to your own experience, or those that are too far?


  1. I'm going to comment on one sentence: At lot of people ARE STILL ignorant about AIDS. You won't believe the things people in this building used to say about Mike who was HIV+ since the 80s.


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