August 3, 2012

How writing works, and how being alive works

I sometimes worry that I would have been a better writer if my life had been more fucked up.

I don’t have a tragic history of abuse. I’ve never had substance addiction issues. I’ve never fought in a war. I’ve never gotten divorced, never been injured. I’ve never really experienced what I consider to be a genuine, significant tragedy in any way, shape, or form.

I’m not, I think, a completely fucked up person. I think I’m kind of stable. Yet I kind of wish I wasn’t, because I wonder if that makes me a bad writer because I’m not enough of a preciously damaged artiste.

But then I remember that that’s stupid. Because it’s not experience that informs imagination: it’s not what your life has contained, but how you look at it, from your perspective and perception and the manner in which you ruminate upon it. After all, a writer whose writing can only be informed by events they have personally experienced is, at heart, a pretty poor writer. Because presumably if they write about things they have not seen and have not experienced, it would not resonate with the reader.

And that’s bad. Because it would mean that your writing lacks empathy and imagination. It means you cannot imagine what it would be like to be a different person, to experience the world through another set of eyes. It means, at heart, that you do not understand your fellow human beings: you only understand you, and what you’ve seen.

So that’s why this article questioning whether a writer would have been better if she’d had a kid is bullshit, on a writing level. To be frank, I don’t even want to mix it up with this on the matter of sexism, or our concept of female life, because to me that’s all so blunt and obviously wrong-headed that it’s almost not worth discussing.

But it is. What this suggests is that a single experience grants validation. Not experiencing that means you are invalid. And the nature of this experience cannot be communicated or known unless you have experienced it.

This goes against every humanistic principle I can think of. It would mean that there are unbridgeable gulfs between us, as people: that we are definitely and permanently separated from one another, foreign, alien, unless we have had that one experience. It suggests we are not One: it suggests we are divisible, divided, and not of the same kind.

I have not ever gotten divorced. I have not ever had a really horrible, awful, depressing breakup. I have never attempted suicide. I have never done heroin. I have never shot anyone, or been shot, or really been in a very serious fight. I have never had homosexual sex, or had sex with multiple partners at the same time. I have never lost my home. I have never lost my child, my wife, my father, mother, or brother. I have never died. And I have never been a mother.

But I will write about these things, perhaps. And I plan to write about them convincingly. Because I can imagine them, and I can imagine them not because I’ve experienced them, but because I’m trying to understand people, and then trying to understand how a person would experience this. I am empathizing with someone who has never been, never existed.

This is the nature of writing. In a lot of ways, it is also the nature of being alive, or even possibly the nature of being good. I hope to do it well.