I’ve never liked controversy, so as a young writer, it took some doing to come up with enough conflict to create a story other people would find worth reading. I tended to focus on themes that dealt with man battling the elements–man against nature rather than another person–except I lacked in experience.
An author from way back
I remember deliberately going into the woods after a snowstorm, wading through hip-deep snow until my legs nearly froze, just to get the experience. I was, of course, a fan of Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat (and much later, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Burton and With Scott to the Pole re-told by Howard Marshall).
I carefully preserved the knowledge of my summer canoe lessons and our trip down the river through rapids. I even swamped the canoe deliberately to get the essence of falling into a river, and had to use my skills to get back into the boat and return to shore. At Inter-provincial Music Camp, at age 13, I taught my camp mates the canoe-over-canoe rescue. At 17, I canoed the wilderness interior of Algonquin Park (Ontario).
I hiked a leg of the Niagara Escarpment beginning in Tobermory (Georgian Bay, Ontario), experiencing extreme thirst when we ran out of water–while constantly looking at it, far below and out of reach down a rocky cliff.
I camped in a tent at Long Point Provincial Park (Lake Erie, Ontario), graveyard of ships, and weathered a storm with flooding and winds that knocked over trailers.
At home, I went out in thunderstorms to feel the hail and wind issuing from blue-black clouds. I ate wild raspberries and built forts in the woods. I found places that served as wilderness settings and deserted islands. I dreamed of surviving in the wild and building a raft. I read Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain).
From event to fiction
As the the decades dropped away, one thing that came to the forefront was all the things that could go wrong with human relationships, either my own, a friend’s, or someone I read about. This exposure made me a better writer, which is why I tend not to pine for my youth in spite of worsening physical attributes. I think writers have an advantage over many other people: they can rework absolutely everything into a story, even the most trying times of their lives, yet adjust the events and reassign identities to such an extent that no one can actually pin the result on any one living person because, at this stage, it truly has become not only a work of fiction, but a universal human condition story with which many people can identify and whose specific events apply to no one exactly.
This not only gives writers a creative edge, but a positive outlet for negative emotions like frustration, anger, regret, grief, rejection, despair, and utter devastation. You can take a writer away from writing, for a while, but you can’t take the writing out of the writer. You can be sure that it will burn inside as long as necessary—until he gets the chance to write it down.
In essence, the harsher the experiences, the more substance in the writing. It becomes one of those can’t lose scenarios that has the power to keep an author alive through anything because it keeps him or her focused, disciplined, and purposeful when they would otherwise throw in the towel.
The power to inspire others
But as much as the author has the power to save himself, so he may have the power to affect and inspire his audience. And that is the greatest reward of all, because human conflict, controversy, and hardship–as we all know–are alive and well.