Academia · Awareness · Shadow-Narratives

Life Lived Twice

heart_bookWriters, particularly creative writers, experience a very specific kind of pain that is exclusive to their profession or hobby. There should be some long, specialized German term for this feeling. It is the pain of not being able to adequately translate experiences or impressions into words.

Life is essentially experiential. We feel pain and pleasure through our five senses and the interior world of our emotions, and then later on, perhaps, we talk about these experiences, which themselves once existed independent from words and verbalizations. Unlike normal people, however, writers aren’t content to simply enjoy the sight of the ocean or the company of their beloved, but have a kind of immediate, neurotic compulsion to try to capture this experience. It’s almost as though the experience isn’t complete until it’s been properly described with the perfect adjectives. Having the right adjective hovering just beyond the scope of your conscious mind is particularly irritating. If you’re friends with people who write for fun or professionally, they have probably composed a description of you in their minds, and I, for one, am damn proud of some of mine.

I, personally, have had the compulsion to describe everything since I was very small. I remember writing an ambitious free-verse poem, probably at around age 7, in which I tried to convey the feelings awakened in me by a piece of music my mom played on the piano. (Incidentally, my mom plays the piano extremely well, almost at a professional level herself. My dad got her a grand piano one year as an extremely nice anniversary present). The piece of music had some eerie minor chords in it, and for some reason it gave me the feeling of being at sea on an old sailing ship as it drifted through the mist, a rocky coastline looming somewhere just out of sight. I’m not sure I adequately captured this in my poem, which might have been unintentionally comical in its seriousness, but it was the start of a lifelong habit.

It’s actually ironic that my main talent is with words, given how much I love art and music, or indeed good food, interesting smells, and anything else sense-related. The first poem I wrote as a child was inspired by a piece of music, and the second was inspired by nature, which more or less sums up what I find beautiful to this day. Although I have the stamina to spend hours in the library doing research, at some point I have to go outside and be in the sunlight, because I don’t think that we should relate to life entirely though print and words. Words are far more cold and cerebral, and far less immediate, than sensory experience. We hear this in sayings ranging from “A picture is worth a thousand words” to the highly misused New Testament verse, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” You know instinctively that words just don’t measure up in some circumstances, but you probably can’t explain exactly why. Maybe, in your mind is the recollection of some great work of art or piece of music that stopped you in your tracks. Another irony here is that I’m using words to explain how inadequate words are.

Art and music often transcend considerable cultural boundaries to convey universal human emotions. Rarely would someone mistake a somber passage in a symphony for a happy one. Words, on the other hand, are notoriously culture-specific and meaning gets lost as soon as you take them out of context. Jokes and humor, in particular, often don’t translate well. You won’t find a joke that begins “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” funny unless you’re familiar with the extensive framework of expectations, assumptions and anxieties that surround those terms.

Why do people persist in writing when it’s an activity that’s almost guaranteed to lead to frustration? I think that for some writers, it’s a kind of homage to reality, while for others it’s how they digest and make sense of experiences, and for still others their writing stems from a desire to make impermanent, ephemeral experiences somehow permanent, even in the ossified format of print. For me, my motivation stems from a mix of all three. Life provides such a rush of interesting, sometimes beautiful and sometimes awful raw material that it seems wrong not to do something with all of it. It would be like being put in an art studio with top-notch supplies in every medium and not creating anything.

This kind of reproducing reality is an activity of both the historian and the novelist, by the way. The only difference is that the novelist has a free hand to develop his characters, whereas the historian is (hopefully) committed to conveying the past the way it actually was, to the best of his or her knowledge. History should, however, be interesting, and feel like a story, because it’s made up of humans and their stories, whether good, bad, or just plain strange. If you can’t make history interesting, well… it’s not the fault of the material.

The filter of the writer’s consciousness notices everything, but can also easily lead the writer astray. Historians are perhaps exempt from this because of their commitment to accuracy, but creative writers are always leading a secondary life that develops and unfolds somewhat in parallel to their real life in the world. Like a painting of a beautiful landscape that is not actually the landscape itself, the writer’s mental descriptions of the world are not the world itself. Writers are constantly generating their own shadow-narratives almost without realizing it, and have to be mindful to ensure that their descriptions don’t overtake their lives. We are like someone who tells tall tales- we base our stories on real events, but tweak a few things and simplify a few characters for the sake of the narrative. For such an inferior, dry, comparatively unappealing medium, words are also perversely seductive, perhaps because some people fall into the trap of believing that something is true because they’ve written it down, mistaking the secondary life for the primary life of reality.



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