Saturday, November 15, 2008

Life Experience vs. Writing

A teacher of mine once said that if you want to have a lot of big adventures, go have big adventures. But if you want to write, stay home. I guess I've pretty much internalized that advice, at least the staying home part. There is another school of thought, though, that says if your life is boring, your writing will be, too.

Which is true? I worry about this, because I sometimes feel like my range is too narrow, and maybe it's because I never lived in China or dropped out of aeronautics school or had an affair with Spiro Agnew or sold gold futures in Dubai. One of the most persistent feelings I get, actually, is regret that I only have this one life, and I can't, actually, be a psychiatrist in Mexico City or deep sea fisher person or raise sheep in Iceland or even teach math in Indiana. I yam what I yam, and it's not much to write home about. Or write about.

But you know, the novels I love best aren't the ones about a writer's exotic experiences. They're either based on careful and loving attention to ordinary emotions -- like Housekeeping, for instance -- or on book reasearch, like Bruce Duffy's superbrilliant The World as I Found It. I guess what I like is imagination. I like the way the human mind works, and I love being surprised and moved by seeing the ordinary world in a new way.

Exotic experiences ARE interesting, of course. But weirdly, they make boring fiction. At least to me. The place for interesting experiences is the memoir or the essay. If you did a cool thing, tell me about it, but don't *lie* -- make it real, make it true.

Oh, yeah, this could all be me rationalizing, because I hate leaving my kids and my chickens and flying freaks me out. I don't want to get any more weird jobs. I doubt I'll ever hike in Nepal. And though I've done one or two semi-interesting things in my life, I've never figured out how to write about them.

Do writers need to have interesting lives in order to write well? Or do they just need interesting minds?


E. said...

Oh, boy. I come down squarely in the "interesting minds" camp. I've been torturing myself lately, drafting and workshopping my first novel; feeling its themes and movement aren't big enough, important enough. I'm an ordinary person living an ordinary life and writing what interests me: the tug of time on relationships.

I had the opportunity to hear a Big Shot Editor last night explain why she bought a novel set in 1939 Moscow, written by a recent (older) MFA graduate who'd done meticulous research. The first thing she said was that he "wasn't writing about being in school, or falling in love, or having young children in the Midwest; he got completely outside himself and *imagined* the whole story, in another time, another country!"

Well, yeah. That's what fiction is, isn't it? Like I don't imagine what's going on in my small, contemporary, ordinary, non-Russian characters' hearts?

Trying to shake that editor's words.

jrlennon said...

It doesn't matter what books are about. It really, really doesn't.

I mean look at the recent Philip Roth book. It's about a guy going to college and having sex. What matters is IT'S A PHILIP ROTH BOOK. Philip Roth is the point. His mind, his way of seeing.

So there ya go! Just be as good as Philip Roth.

amy said...

Oh, exactly. Interesting minds are all that matter -- I think you've put it so well.

Also, have you found that sometimes those people who have done really wacky things and talk about nothing but their exotic travel, etc, are actually sort of boring people when it comes down to it? I don't know. Give me the chickens and a good imagination anyday.

Anonymous said...

i think interesting mind will always beat out life experience but life experience is usually recommended because who wants to read another book about university life? or about suburban ennui? plus having those life experiences only adds a layer of authenticity (that is, if the author has the writing chops/interesting mind) that can't be duplicated by mere research. the second a person who's really been there/done that reads it and senses that falseness, she is going to be pulled out of the 'long continuous dream.' war vets say they can always tell writing by someone who hasn't been there. the writer knows the exact weights and classifications of every little thing. they say nobody remembers that shit after you leave, some of it sticks but your mind isn't a rolodex of facts and figures. also, having fired off many guns at gun ranges myself, i'm wondering why very few writers who mention guns ever mention the taste of carbon that sits heavy on the tongue after shooting so many rounds? it's the little details that add authenticity to fiction and some of those details can't be rendered fully on the page without having experienced the act in life. also, aren't we constantly trying to bring new vantages to fiction? if so, you need to experience the act and write about what about it was singular to you, adding another dimension to the world of fiction that hasn't previously been mined. sorry, it's early, this is all a little jumbled but you get the gist.

Jade Park said...

An interesting mind--if you don't have an interesting mind to begin with, there's no way interesting experiences can make their way onto paper. An interesting mind can make the most banal of happenings unique and insightful and artful and beautiful and tragic.

Alicia said...

Once I had a class with E.L. Doctorow and his whole objective was to make us see that writing is an exploration of a person's mind. Zadie Smith summed it up nice "style is a writer's way of being in the world". I don't know so much if a boring person will write a boring book, but I do think there are some worldly well-traveled boring people, and some really fascinating people who have never left home. A lot of seems to have to do with a natural interest in the world around you whether it is a small town in Idaho or the London jet-set crowd.

The life experience vs. writing argument is shown irreverent in Ben Fountain's "Brief Encounters with Che Guevara". The man has range, not in his passport but in his imagination.

Besides I am living in Hong Kong, and I still am writing about growing up in New Jersey, though I suppose with a different perspective than if I'd stayed home. Yet, I didn't leave for my writing. I left for myself. Running out into the world trying to have experiences in the name of your writing seems to me like high school kids volunteering at the food bank to fluff their college apps, rather than to really help feed needy people.

gcm said...

Melville sailed to the S. Pacific in his twenties, Conrad captained an African riverboat, Jack London traveled the Barbary Coast, then to Alaska, Tahiti, Japan, etc. These are some of my favorite authors.

And yet I also love Borges, a man who lived with his mother for most of his adult life.

Toward the end of that life, in 1979, Borges wrote (or dictated) a preface to a collection of London's work. An excerpt:

"Over the multifaced work of Jack London - like that of Hemingway, who in a certain sense, continues and raises it to another level - two tall shadows are cast: Kipling and Nietzsche.... [These two authors], sedentary men, longed for the action and dangers that their fates denied them; London and Hemingway, men of adventure, were attached to it."

I think the real problem isn't that today's writers are all Kiplings or Nietzsches (or Borgeses). Rather, that by our infatuation with the pettiness of ordinary life (ex. going to college and having sex), we've strayed from the focus of all these men: adventure itself, whether experienced first hand or not.

rmellis said...

Thanks for the great thoughts, people. I hadn't thought of Melville, but he's a great example of someone who used his adventures to write great fiction -- and it wouldn't have been better, in his case, to write memoir. And Melville wouldn't have been so great if he'd stayed home and written about, say, his friendship with Hawthorne.

Actually, I would like to read that book.

lisaalber said...

Oh, interesting minds, great imaginations, for sure. I believe in the imagination. In fact, I think basing novels on real life can be too constricting. Even wondrous adventures need to be refashioned to a certain extent for the novel form. And I don't believe authenticity in fiction comes from having lived the scenario we're writing about. If that were the case, I wouldn't be able to write close-in 3rd male characters! Research and a great imagination and empathy (and knowing the craft obviously) can provide the authentic details.

Warren Adler said...

For me, everything around me is part of a story. The mind processes this information into words, descriptions, conversations, and organizes them into a story form, a beginning, middle and end.


rmellis said...

That's handy! When I was a kid I used to mentally narrate everything I did in the third person: "She's walking down the steps. The wind blows her hair into her fudgcicle...." Etc.

That's probably a mind-set I should get into more often...

Belgium said...

Wait-- I'm missing something. Are you saying that having an affair with Spiro Agnew is good? Because if so... man, am I on the wrong side of this equation.

But on the bigger equation, I'm kinda fuzzy too: why are some "experiences" intrinsically more valuable/important/pick-your-favorite-laudation than other "experiences"? Why, say, is shooting down the Nile in a kayak more "neat" than going to the grocery store to buy a jar of mayonnaise?

Just because someone's had a whole lot of adventure film material crammed into their days doesn't mean they have anything to say to the rest of us who trying to make sense of our suburban ennui/univeristy life/RackRoom Shoes kind of existence.

Pete said...

Experience vs imagination is an irrelevant discussion, because it is ultimately trying to define the impossible: the right process for an average writer to become a brilliant artist.

Writers can develop their craft to a point. But we all know when someone brings something special to it. As for the rest of us...well, there's a glut of mediocre fiction out there.

There are maybe a dozen great writers per generation, and it doesn't matter what they write about or what else they do in life, because they are truly brilliant artists.

If you want to be a brilliant writer, then write brilliantly. I argue that you've either "got it" or you don't. If we're talking about the comparatively modest goal of "getting published", then that's a different question.

jrlennon said...

Well... since chances are good that no one writing or reading this is one of those lucky 12, I guess I'm talking about getting published.

Actually... no. Because though you may be right, Pete, that few of us are ever going to be truly brilliant, a much larger number of us will be Quite Good. There is a very large difference between the Quite Good stuff being published every season and the dregs of what is published. ANYONE can publish a book. But it takes sensitivity, persistence, intelligence, and passion to be Good.

But... does it take a full passport?

rmellis said...

Woops, that was me posting above.