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It was late December 2016, and I was making my morning coffee. Radio Gibraltar streamed from a little Bose Soundlink Mini. It must have been just after 8:31 am because a news piece came on the radio.
It was about a Skype sex scam, which caught my attention.
(A what sex scam, I thought?)
“One night,” the BCC reporter started, “a young Palestinian man living abroad fell victim to an online scam involving a web camera and a beautiful woman.”
That opening gambit had all the classic elements of a good story, demanding attention. I leaned in, clicking the volume a few decibels louder.
“Here Samir (not his real name) tells the story of how he was trapped,”
it continued, “BBC’s Reda el Mawy visits the Moroccan boomtown where many of the scammers are based.”
I stood there, riveted. I remember feeling disgusted by the injustice of the violation … all in service of making money through extortion, willing to destroy lives when demands weren’t met.
It felt shocking, a reminder of how opportunistic some people are. Or driven through circumstance. It was messed up either way.
“The 23-year-old Lebanese girl who seduced Samir on Skype,” the piece continued, “was almost certainly a young man from Oued Zem, a small town in central Morocco that has become known as the capital of the ‘sextortion’ industry.”
And just like that, a “switch” flipped inside of me.
I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I write non-fiction for a living, after all. I love words. But writing fiction felt too difficult.
Yet it wasn’t for a lack of buying and reading fiction craft books. I owned hundreds (and have read many of them). And I read fiction daily — I’ve read thousands of fiction novels across genres, from speculative to literary fiction.
While I had a sense of what it takes to write a piece of fiction, doing the writing felt like a membrane I could never puncture through.
So, I had never written a single word of fiction. Nothing.
But that weekend, imbued by such injustice, I hammered out a 5,000-ish-word short story, creating my alternative narrative. Like judge, jury, and executioner, I doled out justice to a degree that felt appropriate to me. It was like therapy.
I learned a lesson I’ve never forgotten that weekend.
Because even though I had read hundreds of craft books about writing fiction, the moment I started to write, I realized how little I knew. In practice, I knew nothing.
It was like learning to drive or play golf by reading a book. It doesn’t work so well.
I had read about point of view (POV) but had never experienced writing it on the page. I had read about the narrator, the “voice” that tells the story, which is distinct from the POV characters. But intellectualizing something and knowing how to “do it” in practice is very different.
Other than passively reading fiction, I knew nothing about the practice of story tense (past vs. present), first-person (“I” and “we”) vs. third-person (“he,” “she,” or “they”), or the different kinds of third (limited, omniscient, or distant), and how to determine what blend works best for the story that needs telling.
While I had read about these narrative devices, because I had never practiced them, I was like a little rowing boat in a wild storm at sea at night with no oars or compass, subject to the buffeting waves of writing fiction without being tethered to the knowledge of practice.
But boy, I learned that weekend!
I learned more about writing fiction from that short story than from years of reading hundreds of books. Go figure.
L. A. Paul is a philosophy and cognitive science professor at Yale University. Her book Transformative Experience describes a “transformative experience” as both epistemically and personally transformative.
An epistemically transformative experience teaches you something you couldn’t have learned without having that experience.
It’s something you can’t know about merely by hearing or reading about it — you have to actually experience it yourself to understand it fully.
And I’ve never forgotten the (transformative) experience of writing my first (very bad) story. It’s a memory I cherish, a reminder of the chasm between “reading to learn” and the felt experience of “practicing to learn.”
There’s an undeniable magic to non-fiction books.
Imagine, if you will, a veteran sailor who’s spent years exploring uncharted waters, battling storms, and discovering hidden treasures. This sailor knows the language of the winds and can read the ocean like an open book. One day, he decides to map out his journey, complete with warnings, advice, and keys to hidden riches.
That’s what reading a non-fiction book is like.
It’s tapping into years, often decades, of someone else’s experience and wisdom. People pour their heart and soul into their life’s work, stumble through every mistake you can think of, and then — here’s the kicker — they compress that invaluable knowledge into a few hundred pages for you to absorb over a weekend.
It’s like inheriting a treasure map, where X marks the spot of a more enlightened, informed version of yourself.
By turning the pages, you are sailing through someone else’s sea of trials, errors, and triumphs. You get to sidestep the perils they couldn’t avoid and fast-track your way to understanding.
Think about it.
How many years did it take for Malcolm Gladwell to understand the tipping points of social phenomena?
How long did Brené Brown study vulnerability and courage before she wrote her seminal works?
Yet, we get to shortcut our way to their level of understanding in just a few days, or even hours, of reading.
And it’s not just learning. It’s a “teleportation device” to a higher plane of understanding. Every book is a trove of curated thoughts, saving us from the deluge of information we might otherwise have to sift through.
So next time you hold a non-fiction book, realize you’re not just holding pages bound together; you’re holding a lifetime.
A distillation of sweat, tears, and aha moments that can’t be measured in mere words. That, my friend, is the unsung beauty of letting non-fiction books into your life.
But recognize that, as wonderful as books are, they only represent one side of a coin.
L. A. Paul’s concept of “transformative experiences” draws attention to the other side of the same coin.
It’s like the difference between reading a cookbook and actually cooking or hearing about love and falling head over heels for someone.
Let’s get back to that seasoned sailor, this time from the perspective of the other side of the coin.
Reading his account equips you with his wisdom, but it can’t teach you how the salt air smells or how it feels to finally spot land after days at sea. There are sensations, emotions, and intuitions that you can’t capture on paper. A non-fiction book might tell you about the thrill of sailing through a storm, the fear, the adrenaline, but being there, gripping the wheel as the sky turns dark — that’s transformative!
Experiences shape us in ways that are both epistemically and personally transformative, just like Paul talks about.
Sure, you can read a book on meditation, but sitting down, focusing on your breath, and experiencing the clarity or frustration that comes with it — that’s something else.
Or think about becoming a parent (I’m not one for the record). No number of parenting books can prepare you for the emotional whirlwind of holding your newborn for the first time (so I’m told). That’s knowledge through experience, and it hits differently.
Both forms of wisdom — what you read and what you experience — are invaluable, but they also serve different roles in our lives.
Reading is like being given a toolbox with labeled compartments. You’re handed the tools and told what they’re for.
Experiencing is like being thrown a bunch of random tools and learning what each does through trial and error. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they complement each other.
The books give you a framework, a shortcut to understanding. They offer you the shoulders of giants to stand on.
Experiences, on the other hand, throw you into the ring, into the messy, beautiful fray of life, and say, “Okay, now dance.” And in that dancing, in the raw, unfiltered chaos, you learn steps no book can teach.
So, while you absorb the concentrated wisdom from books, don’t forget to write your own chapters through transformative experiences.
One lights the path ahead, while the other deepens the ground you stand on. And it’s in the balance of both that you become the most enlightened version of yourself.
A Tiny World is the space we thoughtfully engineer for our “citizens” to inhabit. As Tiny World Builders, we bring this space to life through architecting transformative experiences.