What It Really Means to Write from Experience
Even as an adult I was a person on whom a very great deal was lost. In fact, that’s why I became a writer. I used a bridge of words to arrive at what I couldn’t discover in any other way. Emotional truths, the real perimeter of personality and event that was otherwise lost behind a viscous myopia—those were the aims of my work. I unconsciously assumed each essay was a kind of prosthetic arm that allowed me to extend further than my limbs could reach to locate what was past the blurry limits of my vision. And I even prided myself on my combination of ignorance and intelligence. Flannery O’Connor wrote that to become a writer one needs a grain of stupidity. I had my grain! In fact, I possessed a hoard of the stupidity that I accurately understood to be an essential ingredient in originality. One must be able to see things new in order to see them fresh. I was the new girl at school in fourth grade, the new girl when I was a professor, and even in middle age, due to some imperturbability of character, I remained frustratingly (by now, to myself) new.
Aspects others took for granted—the right hair care product, the fact that when others offer you a breath mint the correct answer is always to say yes, the awareness that when leaving a party one ought to thank the host and say goodbye and then reciprocate, or that, when meeting a person in a position to help you, you ought to try to impress or at least to connect—were novel to me. I had a somewhat feral quality but this allowed me to register with particular acuteness the textures and valences of things, the weave in a linen shirt, the snarl in a soft command, the precise slightly bitter scent of fresh clay in the art room at school. That is: I was alert to the sense-based fabric of life. My nose twitched, and my ears detected as keenly as if they were the size of cabbage leaves. I was like a blind person who maneuvers through darkness by superior hearing, and whose very skin seems gifted with subtle radar. Social life was of only ephemeral significance to me, while the experiences of the body had sacred force. I assumed this heightened sensitivity meant that I was the type of person Henry James had in mind when he said that a writer ought to try to be someone on whom little—or actually, in his words, nothing—is lost. Didn’t I register a great deal? Wasn’t very little lost on me? But in fact, I’d misunderstood his famous dictum. It was Joan Didion’s Where I Was From that brought this home to me.
For what Joan Didion notices are power dynamics, economic structures, political log-rolling, and the idealization and sentimentality that created the kind of psychic myopia that engulfed me. She takes a corner of the canvas and discovers the weave that extends across the entire big fabric. She knows how to infer. To be more specific: this 2003 book (which ought to be far better known than it is) about Didion’s family origins, the myth of the pioneer, and the development of Southern California, makes visible the kind of structures that undergird visible reality. An example: in examining the once-famous “Spur Posse” of swaggering male high school athletes who preyed upon and molested many of the girls in their town of Lakewood, California, Didion starts with a portrayal of the deteriorating industrial base of that area, and the stunted educational aspirations of the parents there, and the federal subsidizing that had at one time underwritten it all despite the region’s touted ethos of rugged individualism. She shows how one dramatic public phenomenon can be the manifestation of a webwork of forces that might otherwise appear only accidentally related.
Didion saw much more than I did. She focused on what I’d previously considered immaterial, non-essential, and far beyond the scope of what a creative writer required. And so I turned again to Henry James. What exactly had he meant when he stipulated that a writer be someone on whom nothing is lost? Here he is, in “The Art of Fiction,” defining what he means by experience—specifically, what it means to tell a writer to write from experience:
“The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience . . . Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”
On whom nothing is lost! At least he gives us that exclamation point, as if to acknowledge the impossibility of ever being quite that. But I could—we can—try to be people on whom less is lost. I wanted to be more Didionesque. To understand the realities that ground the apparition of things. Because, even being a personal essayist and not a journalist, I knew my work would gain force if I became more worldly, both figuratively and literally. How to do this?
I bought myself an atlas. Soft-cover, plump with maps. And every time I read a place name in any book, I looked it up. Soon I knew where Sacramento was, and the San Bernadino valley, but I also knew where the country was that had been Burma, and where exactly Selma, Alabama, was, and Kentucky, and Saudi Arabia, and St. Ives, and Tolstoy’s Sebastopol. Knowing exactly where communities are made them more real to me.
I kept a notebook in which I wrote facts from news items that I had a hard time remembering because they seemed so preposterous. While Paul Manafort charged Donald Trump nothing to work as his campaign manager, he was ten million dollars in debt to the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. A sixth of the people in the US today suffer from “food insecurity,” not knowing if they will be hungry today or this week. 49,068 people in the US lost their lives in deaths related to the use of opioid drugs last year and we are on track for more to do so this year. Every now and then I flipped back and read the surprising facts again to make them more real.
And I exhorted myself to investigate beyond my comfort zone. Interviewing frightened Didion, too. I must occasionally pursue the encounters she does—with the school superintendent, the factory manager, the officials in possession of a distinct vantage-point who I fear won’t give me the time of day. I must ask them to give it. I must discover the time of day as they see it so I can calculate the hour more accurately for myself. For even the essayist and novelist, as Henry James proposes, ought to be able to extrapolate from the glimpse to the gestalt, knowing what it means when a realtor behaves a certain way, and a family court judge, and a film maker, able to make use of the detail to divine the real deal.
Yet I cling to James’ exclamation point, with its jaunty acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever being someone on whom nothing is lost, even as I understand that for a writer—especially for a writer—an expansion in awareness is the constant necessity. Flannery O’Connor’s golden grain of stupidity complements James’ suggestion that we make use of even the tiniest bit of data. He is saying: prize your ability to surmise and also prize your informed imagination to carry you along. And O’Connor is saying: Let your rejection of received wisdom, which others register as stupidity, enable you to clear a path ahead. The writer needs the kind of fresh experience that comes from innocence, and the kind of information that the educated imagination alone can provide. The writer is ingenue and worldly sage, both.