Wednesday, August 13, 2014

August 13 2014. The importance of a breadth of experience to a writer—plus the ability to understand, appreciate, and empathize with the experiences of others

“Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things--childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves--that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

“How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?”

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

“Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.”
Aldous Huxley, Texts & Pretexts: An Anthology With Commentaries

The more experiences you have, the more you have to write about—and the more you are likely to understand the experiences of others. Such understanding is fundamental to the high level of overall awareness that characterizes the finer writers. 

Experiences—unless truly bad (or fatal—which is something of a bummer) tend to lead to more experiences. I’m not quite sure why, but I guess they arouse your curiosity—and then one thing leads to another. Travel to France and then you wonder what neighboring Spain is like—so you pop over the border. The next thing you know you are in Gibraltar—and North Africa is beckoning. And the Straits of Gibraltar are so narrow—so you take the ferry, watch the the leaping dolphins that accompany you with fascination—and now you are in Tangier, Morocco.

Or such was my experience—and pretty much everything happens in Tangiers—or did back in the day. 

It’s best if they are  direct—but, where writing is concerned, it’s not essential—just better. That said, an indirect experience is not really an experience. Only listening to the telling is an experience. The actual incident--no matter how fascinating it is, and how vivid the account, it is really only information—and not necessarily accurate at that. Mind you, by the time your subconscious has worked it over, it may seem like your very own direct experience.

Memory can be quite eccentric in its behavior—downright willful in fact. And not always honest. You make the best of it.

Besides,  there are some things you really do need to experience personally. Sex is one. Being under fire is another. Flying in an attack helicopter would be a third (as far as I am concerned). Having an imagination would be yet another.

Can you imagine an imagination if you don’t have one? I doubt it.

Being in love is a life-changing agony no one should miss.

Experience is defined as, “Practical contact with, and observation of, facts and events.” Observation covers a multitude if the word ‘direct’ is not included.

Well, there are various definitions of experience, but I tend towards the view that a real experience should be direct and personal. After all, an important part of an experience is your own reaction to it. The more experiences you have, the more insight you will have into your own emotions—which you can then transfer to your characters (or use in your memoirs). Strangely enough, you can’t really experience other people’s emotions. All you can do there is experience their reactions—which is not the same thing.

A breadth of experience—apart from giving you more material—can help you empathize more effectively. Will experiences make you empathetic in the first place? Probably not. But if you are a naturally simpatico person, then having been through the same thing as the person you are talking to—or something close—will promote understanding. Also, you need to appreciate that the more you know, the more people will tell you. That seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Where most occupations are concerned, primarily experiences tend to be of maximum value when relevant to the field in question. Accordingly, if you are a doctor, the fact that you have experience of farming won’t help you much. However, if you are a writer, providing you write daily—note that imperative—then  what you really want to do is have experiences of as many weird and wonderful occupations, places, and situations, as you can.

The point here is that writing is fundamentally about human nature so the more experience you can have of that, across as diverse a spectrum as possible, the better. That way, you will be better equipped to create characters, and have a real feeling for how they think, talk, and act.

A variety of jobs also broadens the mind and increases understanding—whereas working solely in one field has a disconcerting tendency to do the opposite. The professions, in particular, seem to produce types. Accountants, for instance, have a tendency to look, act, and apparently think (one can never be sure) like accountants. Specialization can make you blinkered—which is the last thing a writer needs to be.

I have never compiled a list of all my experiences—something I must do some long rainy Sunday afternoon—but I really have done an astonishing variety of things, traveled extensively, and read a truly obscene number of books.

All I can say is that the totality of my experiences means that I know something (even if not enough) about most things—and rarely have a problem thinking of something to write about. Or of thinking.

That is not always a good thing—thinking can be a burden—but it is mostly positive if you are a writer. We are supposed to think. It is how we turn thoughts into words.

So go forth and do weird and wonderful things with weird and wonderful people—and you will never suffer from writers’ block again.

Just remember to use a condom.

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