Someone on Whom Nothing Is Lost!

There are several Points of Exasperation that inevitably arrive in any extended discussion among a group of fiction writers, particularly a group of fiction writers arranged tensely around a formica table at a workshop or critique session. One PoE will come when someone broaches the unavoidable “show don’t tell” discussion. Someone will say, “I wish the author would trust us to know that Jane hates the dog by how she kicks the food dish, rather than having her say, ‘I hate this dog.’” And the author will roll her eyes and think to herself, “Yes, but human beings sometimes talk. They sometimes even say obvious things.” And, unfortunately, both the writer and the reader are correct. It’s all about balancing showing and telling, using each approach to manage the rhythm of a scene, making sure that the scene adds meaning and poetry to the overall story, etc., etc.

A more interesting PoE, for me, comes when someone (generally a more mature writer) delivers the pronouncement that the author (usually a less experienced or younger one) should “write about what she knows.” The more mature writer is exasperated because the younger one is writing about vulture capitalists or Rhodesia or what it’s like to be 79 years old and has got it all wrong. The younger writer is exasperated because she’s written all the self-absorbed high school breakup poems already and the summer vacation story about the time her best friend ditched her at the park for a cute 7th-grade boy, and she simply needs new material. “So, what am I allowed to write about?” she thinks (or yells). “Isn’t fiction all about what we can imagine, anyway?”

I’ve been thinking this past week about Henry James’ definition of experience in The Art of Fiction (1884):

The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, 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, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. 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!”

By James’ rule, even the younger fiction writer has enough experience to write things worth reading, stories that even older readers will appreciate. Experience, based on impressions, is everywhere and it happens to all of us, whether we are a wet-eared country bumpkin or Joan Didion. The key is that last bit, to be someone “on whom nothing is lost!” (I must preserve the man’s exclamation point. It’s too lovely.)

If you are — or train yourself to be — one of the people on whom nothing is lost (!), you observe that although you’re not a 79-year-old neocolonial Rhodesian vulture capitalist, you have had experiences that could inform the crafting of such a character. Because you have felt powerless at some point, because you have tried to take advantage of someone else’s bad situation, because you’ve had moments when you didn’t know who was an ally and who was the enemy, you can “guess the unseen from the seen” and “judge the whole piece by the pattern,” as James suggested. You can imagine this person, his motivations, his desires and failings, because they are your own. You have to be willing to see this in yourself, though, “to feel life … so completely that you are well on your way to knowing” the particular corner of it you are seeking to depict.

For even the most observant writer, however, I think this sort of excavation remains a profound challenge. The most easily lost thing is that buried deep inside us.

September 10, 2012 Blog Posts