Cannibalism for Dummies

As an author, you are always at a disadvantage.

Because you are trying to record experiences you will never have (unless you’re writing autobiography, and you can only do that once). You don’t know what it’s like to ride a dragon, or fight your way through a gauntlet of assassins, or travel on a faster-than-light spacecraft.

But those things are easy to write about because nobody has experienced them. You don’t have to have personal experience to describe dragon riding. No matter how you depict it, you account is unfalsifiable. No one has the wherewithal to contradict you.

Writers who want to turn up the difficulty level will try describing realistic experiences—albeit ones that a lot of people don’t get the chance to do in person. For example, a lot of people don’t know what it’s like to ride a horse or fly in a hot air balloon. Accurately capturing these experiences in words can be enjoyable for people without the opportunity or nerve to do them in person.

But if you want to really dial up the realistic escapism, you’re going to have to play with fire.

Because there is another kind of experience that people are curious about but usually unwilling to indulge in. These are top-shelf experiences, promising your mild mannered readers a lifestyle they could never dream of living out.

I am of course referring to adventures in law-breaking.

The Freedom of the Criminal

There’s a reason why crime thrillers make such phenomenal bestsellers. It’s not that most people wish they could commit crimes. Far from it—people want to live safe and happy lives, and have willingly built walls between themselves and criminal behavior.

But that also means never knowing what it feels like to experience those transgressive behaviors. Most people understand that they wouldn’t like living those kinds of lives, that it would feel awful. But they will forever wonder: how awful?

Most people avoid criminal activity to the point where they can’t even imagine what it feels like. And people get uneasy when they encounter something they can’t imagine. It gnaws at them, wondering what they’re missing out on.

So if, as a writer, you can give these experiences to readers, you have a leg up. If you can, for example, write a story that lets the reader understand what it’s like to do hard drugs, people will take an interest. Some writers will even do hard drugs so that they can then write about the experience.

But not every writer can do this. And not every crime can be capitalized on. Say that a writer really wants to know what it’s like to commit a murder, so he goes out and murders someone. Do you think he could use his experience as a murderer to write a great true-crime story about murder?

I mean, could it happen more than once?

No hypothetical book is so good that it justifies going out and killing someone. And, at least in my case, no hypothetical book justifies doing hard drugs. I know a lot of writers disagree, but you can’t expect everyone to go out there and do lines of cocaine off a hooker’s butt (those razorblades really hurt, by the way).

Yet people still write murder plots, including extremely graphic descriptions, without having done the deed themselves. How is this accomplished? Even deep research cannot tell you how it feels to strangle someone or blow them up with explosives.

Ultimately, it comes down to imagination. Can you imagine doing something truly taboo?

Your Writing Prompt: Cannibalism

I’m taking a shot in the dark here, but I’m guessing you’ve never imbibed.

How does a non-writer write about cannibalism? Perhaps the first step is to examine your own feelings about it as an outsider. Most real cannibals living today practice it ceremonially. They don’t just go out and eat anyone willy nilly. As a non-cannibal, did you think it was just like hunting or raising livestock?

And then there’s the big question.

If you can write a convincing cannibalism scene, you can write anything.

Trust me.

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