“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.”—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches
If writers desire readers to breathe life into their words, then they must breathe experience into their words as they write, says Peter Elbow in Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. “I don’t know why it should be the case,” he writes, “that if you experience what you are writing about—if you go to the bamboo—it increases the chances of the reader’s experiencing the bamboo. But that’s the way it seems to work.”
This idea holds clues to the weird power of scenes. Elbow speculates that images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid experience rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:
The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .
It may be complicated for psychologists or philosophers to deal with this distinction between seeing and really seeing, but it’s simple enough to notice it on certain occasions: you stand there on the lawn and really see that beech tree and somehow the perception fills you or fully occupies you—the tree is wholly present to you. Or else, you stand there and, yes, you see it, but somehow you don’t see it fully, for you are slightly distracted or numb or unable to focus your attention. Some of your energy or attention is elsewhere. There is incomplete impact or commerce between you and the tree.
So the principle, at least, is simple:
If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience, when you have gotten to the bamboo, you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)
It is probably easier to really experience something if you are actually standing there looking at it. But not necessarily. And it is probably easier to really experience something if you have actually seen it—that is, you will probably do better writing about memories than made-up events. But not necessarily. For the essential act in experiencing something is wholly internal . . .
In other words, as Ford Maddox Ford supposedly said, the writer must see characters as if they are on a lighted stage. Elbow expands and refines this idea:
For you as a writer, then, the crucial distinction is between trying to experience your subject fully versus trying to find the right words. In the one activity your energy and attention are directed wholeheartedly to what you are describing, in the other your energy is directed at your language or at your reader or at considerations of what kind of writing you are doing. . . .
When your raw writing grows directly out of full experience of your subject, the life entrapped in those words enables you to generate more words during the revision process that also contain life. The life in those original words keeps you in touch with the experience and enables you to dart back into it even if only for a moment as you search for a better word or phrase—even though you are engaged in the cold, calculating process of revising.
Elbow believes writers succeed more often in rendering small moments than in big, dramatic ones, which they refuse to experience as they write. He says keeping the mere thinking self—the pushy ego—out of the way tends to simplify the words used and emphasizes the essence of the experience. In any case, “Experience the tree” is better advice, he says, than “Give more details.” And beware of later feelings that flood the memory; they can prevent the writer from re-experiencing the original feeling in order to create.
Next: Elbow’s tips for conveying experience.