Wednesday, 8 January 2014

How much 'experience' does a writer need? Not much, and it needs to come early


How much experience does a writer need?

Lyric poets in partcular seem to be able to write just fine without having exprienced anything beyond childhood and adolescence - because, in terms of subjective time and strength of emotions and perceptions, childhood is the main time of life.

Hence, poets can produce first rate work at a young age, and many excellent poets never get much beyond the subject matters of chidlhood and adolescence (e.g. Dylan Thomas).

Adolescence is useful because the experience of being in love opens up a lot of possibilities; experience of marriage and having a family completes the requisites and perhaps exceeds them even for a novelist with a broad social canvas; since writers as great as Jane Austen have not themselves been married or had children (although they have experienced these vicariously, via family).

Adult experience is - by contrast - generally a shallow and inessential thing to a writer; in fact it is more often a snare than a help - probaby because it is neither so intense nor so fully assimilated as early experience.

Writers that write mostly about their adult experiences are generally below even the second rank, and among the best writers adult subject matter usually corresponds to their lesser works.

For instance, when Saul Bellow writes about his childhood and teen years, he is a great and magnanimous writer; but when he write about adult things he is pretentious, spiteful and petty.

Another example: Robert Frost's later satirical and topical poems (from his experiences as a famous man) are at a generally lower level than his earlier work; although Frost's greatness - his much greater strength-with-range than most other lyrial poets - came from his having retained an extended child-like sensitivity to experience (an innocence) until he was about forty, when he began publishing poems.

The common practice of gathering experience in order to write about it (like the genre of 'travel writing') is fundamentally a fake activity; and that comes through into the writing as the flaw of dishonesty, which works like a crack in a china vase - the writing does not ring when tapped, but merely emits a dull crunch.



The Crow said...

Almost all writing is mundane, in that its content is broadly known to all. Thus, in order to write about the mundane well, it needs to be written in such a way as to impress.
I find the best writing of all to be the kind that might as well have been written with no expectation of ever being read by other human eyes.
Accidental, almost. As opposed to contrived.

Thursday said...

Lyric poets need very little experience to work with, though there have been lyric poets who have made good use of their old age as fodder for poetry: Yeats, Hardy, Stevens.

Bellow's a minor writer, period. "Young man's novels" tend to be things on the level of The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises, good to be sure, but rather callow.

I cannot imagine Don Quixote Part II, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, The Portrait of a Lady, In Search of Lost Time, Mansfield Park, Middlemarch etc being written by young men or women. Same goes for epic poetry: Homer, Dante, Milton.

Children, marriage (at least the early years), the aging and death of one's parents are all quite primal experiences that one has to be older to experience, and which have proven great fodder for novelists, and sometimes poets.

The best work tends to get done from 35 to 55.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - I agree Bellow is a minor writer - no shame, who isn't?

But - much as I dislike a lot about his fiction - there is no better (as good, but not *better*) English prose writer in the past 60 years. It is a real wonder!

Crosbie said...

Off-topic, but which Bellow should I read?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie. Of the Novels - 'Herzog'; but it is pretty difficult to understand. First you might look at the short story collection 'Him with his foot in his mouth' - of which 'Zetland: by a character witness', is my favorite.