Super Essay: Experience
If imagination is a process of transforming experience, we might ask what “experience” is. Experience is fuel for the imagination. It is also the vehicle of inspiration, which I also intend to define.
Inspiration is a curious thing. Many writers will feel embarrassed to admit their belief in inspiration, as it has the air of the religious about it. To inspire can also mean to breathe in, which is a clue. In religion, breath is associated with creation, as when in Genesis Adam is animated by God’s breath. But to breathe in is to take in something from the surrounding world, to taste the air and its quality of coldness or dustiness or heat, and to absorb some of its oxygen. Inspiration is the element of the creative process that comes from outside you, from other people or from the natural world, the alien element in one's writing that gives the work its own mysterious impetus and animation.
I do not think that the creative attitude is one of passivity, of sitting around and waiting for a muse to strike. As much as one can be inspired, one can inspire, can deliberately take a deep breath of air. But an element of passivity is involved in this approach. An approach of active openness and attention to the world allows a writer to best use his or her mind flexibly.
The appreciation of nature provides us with an idea of what this approach might mean. Robert Macfarlane, in an article on writers and landscapes, writes about the concept of “attention”,
Iris Murdoch, unexpectedly, can be of help here. Murdoch's ethical vision was based upon a concept which she, after Simone Weil, called “attention”... When we exercise a care of attention towards a person, we note their gestures, their tones of voice, their facial expressions, their turns of phrase and thought… this attention, she memorably wrote, “teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used.”
Murdoch's ideal of “attention”, of a compelling particularity of vision, obtains to landscapes as well as to people… The best landscape writers have been attentive, in the sense that Murdoch and Weil meant that word, to the terrains through which they have moved.
“Only Connect”. Guardian Review 26 Mar. 2005
I have found that all of my best writing begins with this state of openness, this process of paying attention to experience. It is a question of going into the world and noticing what jumps out at you, recognising ideas as they form, and letting them grow.
It is often the case that, when paying attention in this way, something will leap out at me that I know I have to include in my writing, even if it is incongruous as a symbol with the rest of the work. It is beneficial to allow these incongruous elements in one’s work. Doing so frustrates the control you have over your work, but also imbues the work with a certain unpredictability and openness. If, to paraphrase Barthes, to give a work an author is to close that work, then allowing these rogue elements to act in your creative process is to allow the work to stay open.
Macfarlane sees attention as an active state of mind that can be applied both to the social and the natural world. I would propose that this state of attention is not only applicable to others and to the world of nature, but also to the inner world of thought and emotion. Becoming aware of one’s own psychological and emotional processes facilitates a sort of emotional honesty. And one’s knowledge of oneself is bound to affect the process of writing.
Turning this attention inwards, one also faces a certain paradox, of how it is even possible for the observer to observe itself. The boundaries between inner and outer worlds, between self and other, are challenged. Here, we can relate the state of attention to practices of meditation, spiritual, religious and otherwise, which seek to dissolve the ego into a state of intimacy or even union with the natural world. It would be going too far to suggest that this state of oneness is the goal of a writer. Not all writers are Zen Buddhists, after all, and I’m not suggesting they should be. But Zen and other meditative practices have ramifications for writing, for the ideas of inspiration, spontaneity and control especially. Alan Watts highlights these in the chapter “Zen in the Arts” from “The Way of Zen”.
Watts looks at the Japanese art forms most closely associated with Zen – sumi-e painting and traditional haiku poetry – and concludes that “the arts of Zen are not merely or primarily representational” (193). Like William Carlos Williams’ poetry, the Zen-influenced tradition of haiku attempts to evoke rather than represent, and to cause the reader to directly experience the poem. “Good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory.” (Watts 202).
The other thing we might glean from the Zen approach to art is the notion of art as something natural, rather than a controlled artificial construction,
the work of art is considered not only as representing nature but as being itself a work of nature. For the very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the ‘controlled accident’, so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict. (Watts 193)
This is an extension of the state of attention. In being attuned to the outside world, one can participate in it, such that there is really no separation between the writer and the world in which he or she writes. They are all part of the same process. In this way, writing becomes a human, worldly activity, in the same category as eating, walking and conversing. Seen like this, we can free writing from the ideas of meticulous control and genius that are the unfortunate legacy of high modernism.
It is a pernicious myth that every element of a text has been placed there by the author deliberately and for a purpose. This is how we are taught to critique texts from GCSE level onwards. It is true that contemporary literary theory, from Barthes, has rejected the idea of authorial intent, but it still lingers on. The adjunct to this is the notion of the author as someone of superhuman intelligence and skill, a genius. To T. S. Eliot, the best writers moved from personal expression to the “expression of significant emotion”, emotion that supposedly transcends history and self, but seems more like a convenient justification for literary elitism. It is these ideas of meticulous authorial control and genius that cause writing to be viewed as an esoteric and elitist pursuit.
The notion of the “controlled accident” goes some way to ameliorate this view. The grain of inspiration in writing is an “accident” that appears to the writer from the outside world, which must then be formed under the writer’s faculty of artistic control, as a pearl is developed from a grain. But the creative process, no matter how seemingly controlled and artificial, must be seen as one process with the original inspiration. “… for Zen there is no duality, no conflict between the natural element of chance and the human element of control.” (Watts 193). Here, there is no room for the genius-figure who produces great literature ex nihilo from his own intellect. The writer’s role is a more humble one, one of collaboration with the spontaneity of nature.
In this essay I have outlined in some detail the philosophy that informs my approach to writing and to living. It seems to me that a full-hearted approach to writing will necessarily come to comment on one’s approach to life in general. In spite of the references to Blake, Zen, the imagination, etc, I do not want to suggest that writing is an exclusively spiritual pursuit. My intention is not to conflate all my ideas about writing into a religious worldview.
I’m afraid this essay might not have ranged broadly enough. I have not talked specifically about writing fiction, and I have learnt a lot about that this year: but my general comments on the processes of writing are all relevant to how I write prose fiction. Equally, I have not touched upon nonfiction writing, and the differences between personal and formal essays, as was suggested. I only hope that the style of this essay demonstrates my preferred style of informal writing.
I no longer find it a contradiction to think of myself as a writer, because this year has demystified to me the nature of writing. It is, as this essay outlines, an uncomplicated and very human activity; a case of paying attention to the world and seeing with the imagination. I plan to keep at it.