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When I think about it, the word ‘experience’ can be interpreted in different ways.  Google tells me that it is “practical contact with and observation of facts or events” (noun) but it is also a verb “to experience” meaning “encounter” or “feel”.  These definitions convey a sense of closeness – an experience is something that we see, touch, hear, feel – we use our senses and emotions when we ‘experience’.  We relate to an experience – it’s not something happening over there somewhere.

Recently, I have found myself thinking about how different contexts can require you to ‘zoom’ in or out to talk or write about experience in different ways.  I remember once when I was asked in an interview about my experience of doing something so I described an activity that I had been part of with a number of other people.  I kept saying ‘we did, and then we did, and as a result’.  The interviewer said, ‘that’s all very interesting but I am not sure what it was that you did, what did you contribute’.  I realised later that I struggled to zoom in to the level that the interviewer required.  Experience in that setting means more than ‘exposed to’ or ‘part of’, it means something more focused on my own role and contribution.  Other times, we talk or write about our experience in order to reflect – to consider what we did and why, how we reacted and why, and what we would do differently faced with similar circumstances.

To experience different ways of writing about my experience, I forced myself to write three identical length paragraphs about my experience of the Kielder Marathon.  They are all 101 words in length.

The first is quite a factual account.  Although it is obvious that I was there that day, it is mostly quite distant from my actual ‘experience’ (feelings, emotions, actions, interactions):

I recently ran the Kielder marathon along with 650 others although we were soon dispersed along the course.  The course was hilly – nothing too long but as soon as you got to the bottom of a hill you were heading upwards again.  There were one or two steep hills towards the end where a lot of people, including me, were walking.  The weather was a little mixed but at least it didn’t pour down with rain.  In the wooded areas, you weren’t really aware of the wind but when the course went across the dam it was a really tough headwind.

The second zooms in on a more specific experience.  It draws out some of the sensations and emotions I was feeling at that moment:

At about 30km, I turned onto the Kielder Dam.  Instantly, a headwind hit me.  It was icy cold.  I hunkered down behind the person in front using them to protect me from the wind.  I was one of a long line of people doing the same thing.  We all needed each other to get across that dam.  Our experience of running alongside others meant we did not need to speak, we just fell into line.  I was really tired when I turned the corner at the end.  I saw my husband – “well done Helen, high five”.  He made me smile again.

The third stays with that same specific moment but uses it to illustrate the social nature of running practice.

Whilst solitary, running performance may depend on other runners.  Take the time, I ran across Kielder dam in a headwind.  Up to that point in the marathon, I had not really related with the other runners.  But once I felt that wind, I instantly realised that they were important.  I adjusted my position so that I benefited from the protection of the person in front.  I sensed that the person behind was using me in the same way.  It wasn’t just my own fitness that got me through that challenging kilometre, it was the nature of my relationship with other runners.

Thinking about this has made me realise that it is important to consider the purpose when I am writing about my experience – if I know the purpose then I am better placed to frame my writing in a way that will best help me achieve that purpose.

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Zooming in on experience