img_6759The Risk of the Real

I had some very interesting conversations with the elementary kids I teach in a reading group.  We were discussing The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Even thought it is a drab little bird, the nightingale is considered the most marvelous thing in the Chinese empire.  When the Emperor finally hears the nigthingale sing, he is moved to tears and orders the bird to live in the palace and be available to sing whenever he wants it to.

Then the Emperor is given a gift of a mechanical nightingale, covered in jewels and singing from a cylinder in its chest.  The Emperor tries to get the birds to sing a duet, but the fake bird can’t work with the real bird because it only knows one song.  While the mechanical bird sings alone, the real one leaves.  But everyone at the court agreees that the mechanical bird is better and better to look at.

Eventually the fake bird wears out, and no one can fix it.  And it takes the real bird to save the Emperor from Death.nypl-digitalcollections-510d47d9-708e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-w

I asked the kids, before the real nightingale saves the Emperor, which bird was better. All the kids, over twenty of them, said the real bird was better but had a difficult time describing how.  They almost all agreed that a living thing is better than a fake copy.  One girl gave the best explanation when she said the real bird could do more, invent new songs, do things on its own.

But with the ability to do more on its own, the real bird is more risky.  It might not want to perform when the Emperor wants it to.  It might not sing the song he wants.  And it left when it felt like it.

In this age when we can have any number of experiences from the safety of our digital devices, we writers must risk the real.  Of course, some experiences can only and should only be researched — such as describing a running gun battle through dark city streets.  But I should at least venture out into a city at night, preferably the city where my gun battle is set.  If I am going to write about a character who loves horses, I need to learn how to ride and care for them.  If I am writing about a knitting group, I need to join one.  If I am writing historical fiction, I need to visit the locations I am writing about.

Risking the real means giving up the control that the digital experience offers.  I may look foolish as I try to learn a new skill.  Or I may sound like a clueless novice when learning from experts. Or I may actually get hurt. But I owe it to my readers and myself to experience what I write about as thoroughly as is practically possible, so I can convey that experience honestly and accurately, especially to those readers who will never have a chance at the same experience.

I learned things about horses and the people who work with them the two years I took riding lessons that I never could have learned from reading about the subject.  I also learned what it takes to heal from a fall from a galloping horse.

The risk is worth the real.

To learn more about the version of The Nightingale shown above, click here.