Write from Experience!
I was talking to someone who’s in the throes of First Novel. She said with much frustration, “How can you get any sense of wonder into a story when everybody tells you to write from experience? What is ‘sense of wonder’ anyway? Is it just inventing new kinds of vampires or unicorns or aliens?”
Okay, first. I can see why writing teachers advise young writers to rely on experience in crafting stories. It’s difficult for a sixteen-year-old writer to write convincingly about the experience of old age, or the extremes of war, if their experience has been pretty much confined to a comfortable home, school, visits to Gramma, and war as shown in entertainment media. But to limit writers by admonishing them to write only from experience is to discount the amazing human facility for perceiving a pattern from a couple of pieces–from gaining a sense of a whole house from an impression of a chair, a wall, a rug–from guessing where someone will go from the first few turns in the road.
Experience can make us feel secure in predicting the pattern, or how the house looks, or where the destination lies, but art lies in the choosing of those pieces, the bits of furniture, and the parts of the road, and conveying them to the reader. Some young writers have the gift from the time they first come up with words, whereas anyone who has listened to an older person of wide experience struggle to convey a part of what they lived through, and fail, knows that this gift is not given to all.
Imagination, Belief, and Surprise
The truth is, most of us are never going to have the kinds of experiences we like to read about. We wouldn’t want to, in most cases. That’s why we read–we humans love gaining experience without having to endure it. The vicarious experience is one of our most amazing abilities. And it can help us to understand, and empathize with, others.
The second thing is the question of sense of wonder. For the writer, it requires imagination–the invention of things that we can’t possibly experience. We’ve been doing it ever since humans found tools to record the things that mattered most. From the evidence, it appears that imagination, that sense of wonder about worlds (and things in this world) unseen but only imagined, has been important for ever.
Sense of wonder is one of the great things about being a kid, because it seems to exist all around. One of rewards of being a teacher was seeing students get excited over a book I’d once loved. Or seeing them get excited about a new and nifty book. Sometimes, of course, they got excited about a book that I couldn’t get through. For the kids, the threadbare plot, language, characters, and dialogue were fresh and new, and I would never take that sense of goshwow! from them.
My first goshwow was in Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books when I was nine. The idea that people could be utterly different, and fascinating, yet still be your friends, was a window-opener to me, who approached history with dread when we were presented “savages” of various sorts, the implication always that they were uncivilized and dangerous, and of course we would have to either fight or civilize them with our wonderful WASP Manifest Destiny. I got that same thrill from my first Andre Norton science fiction novel, read at age twelve, wherein the young woman was psychically linked to a wolf–here animals became friends, though again they were not human. They even saw humans as weak, and through the animal eyes, I could agree, yes, humans really are weak. But mutual trust and support made the pair stronger.
Henry James observed that a good novel connects with the reader both through the resonance of the familiar (that sense of yes, this is so true!) and through surprise. That sense of the familiar doesn’t have to be true fact, but it does have to be convincing. We have to believe in its truth, even if for only the length of the story. When I was a kid, fairy tales were pretty much regarded as kiddie fare, largely because kids could believe anything. As adults, we’re a lot more reserved about our beliefs, though we’re willing to suspend them for the length of a story that we are otherwise enjoying. Conviction as well as surprise are tougher to come by when one has been reading one’s favorite genre for decades. Old gray-hairs like me still love the genre, but we’ve read a lot. Can we still experience that sense of goshwow?
The writer who can deftly and convincingly create a storyverse that enables us oldsters to dissolve the boundary between this world and that is rarer, and our sophistication enables us to more deeply appreciate their cleverness and invention. But it’s not merely detailed maps and calendars and made-up languages and customs, put together into a convincing pattern, that brings me back again and again to those created worlds. There is another element, one so fundamental that I see it there as the impulse behind the First Story, which is that sense of inner expansion that can be expressed as sense of wonder.
The Great Escape
How exactly to define it? I will offer quotes from two writers who seem about as disparate as possible in literary tastes and in paradigm. I doubt either read the other’s work, or would have enjoyed it if they had, though they were contemporaries: Vladimir Nabokov and J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s fascinating that these two very different writers could come up with the same images: the escaping prisoner, and the thrill of joy. Or maybe it’s not so surprising, as many (including Tolkien) call the ‘Great Escape’ a wish for escape from death. We are creatures of patterns, and Plato wrote two thousand years ago about our longing for patterns that promise glimpses of even larger patterns, beyond the interlocking wheels of sun and stars.
Here is Nabokov, after he talks about the thrill of pattern recognition in fiction:
In my example memory played an essential though unconscious part and everything depended upon the perfect fusion of past and present. The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire cycle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist.
It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the non-ego rushing in to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.
And here is Tolkien, in his Essay on Fairy Stories:
…this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce extremely well, is not essentially “escapist” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatasrophe, of sorrow and failure. The possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy. Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.