The Mirror of Human Experience
It might be considered an odd thing, but many writers struggle not because they can’t communicate but because they have nothing significant to communicate.
A rambling series of images, even when accurately and passionately described, does not necessarily constitute ‘good writing’ and will not on its own guarantee success for a writer. A brief scan over some of the most enduring pieces of literature in the world reveals that most of its authors had deeply felt ideas which acted as both a ground and a source for their tales.
In other words, what we read in great stories is in some ways the surface of a deeper lake.
It might sound brutal, but sitting at a desk and typing out the random pictures and notions that pop up in one’s imagination is not itself the key to writing great fiction. Doing so superficially, without proper concentration or attention to detail, will fail to engage readers at all. The good news is that there is a way ‘in’ to this deeper level of writing.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through a few exercises. These are designed to both activate a writer’s imagination and to ground that imagination in a convincing ‘reality’ which will communicate depth to a reader.
1. Track what you are thinking about.
This is going to seem strange, maybe, but we are so accustomed to our own thinking processes that many of us have become blind to them and miss their potential.
There is a theory that we are actually dreaming all the time, and that the day to day world with its lights and shapes merely obscures these dreams, pushes them into the backs of our minds. At night, with the lights out, and with distractions removed or minimised, this background mental activity comes to the fore and we finally see what we call ‘dreams’.
You can test this for yourself by taking any ten second period and then exploring what your mind actually covered during that period. At first, you might just notice what we have come to call ‘conscious’ thoughts, as you sit in a chair and watch yourself think: perhaps you are looking out of a window or staring at a wall and can only detect the foreground thinking involved - things outside the window, pictures on the wall, and so on. You might quickly notice the rational thought sequences that take place in that ten second period: ‘Here I am thinking for ten seconds’ or ‘This chair is slightly uncomfortable’ or ‘I wonder how long it is till lunch’. But after a while, you might start to sense those images, feelings and flashes of thought which are more subliminal - that glimpse of a face, or a colour, or a tiny memory, or a passing flurry of emotions.
In brief, there is a lot of ‘thinking’ that happens in any given ten seconds.
2. You can take this a step further by contacting memories and exploring what they actually contain as opposed to what you think they contain.
Recall a time, for example, when you had a really good conversation with someone. You might not be able to remember the exact words, but you will probably glimpse the emotions and trains of thought which were involved.
For example, if you think back to when you last visited a beach, your initial instinct might be to picture the whole incident as one thing: ‘the visit to the beach’. A little more time and concentration, though, and you will find details jumping out at you. If you persist, you will find the whole thing coming to life, including sounds and smells.
Cultivate that, and you will end up with passages which capture the speed and density of human thought as it is actually experienced, and thus, by matching that in the reader, manage to engage their attention.
By way of example, here’s an extract from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India:
She tried to go on with her letter, reminding herself that she was only an elderly woman who had got up too early in the morning and journeyed too far, that the despair creeping over her was merely her despair, her personal weakness, and that even if she got a sunstroke and went mad the rest of the world would go on. But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words, from 'let there be light', to 'it is finished' only amounted to 'boum'. Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul…
This level of density of thought is approachable if writers are in contact with their own thinking and feeling observantly enough, paying attention to what they are experiencing astutely enough to reproduce that depth on the page.
Great literature, in effect, could be said to be the mirror of human experience.