Saturday, May 16, 2009

Writing and Reality

This is inspired by Yukio Mishima. Paul Schrader's good film "Mishima, a life in four chapters" starts out with an extended narrative sequence where Mishima talks about the contradiction between writing and action, how he started with words before he had developed action. The sequence is taken almost verbatim from "Sun and Steel", Mishima's extended essay on the development of the body and the relation of body to thought and writing. And, although it's not necessarily important to this, the early biographical material connected to the sequence is taken from "Confessions of a Mask", Mishima's first book. Anyways, I didn't really understand what Mishima or Schrader channelling Mishima, meant by an opposition between words and reality until very recently.

The problem of understanding the concept, at least for me, stems from the loaded meaning that the "Word" in the sense of writing has in Western culture. In the beginning was the word, and the word was god, and the word was with god, and the word walked among us. From the New Testament.

But I substituted in my mind "Writing" for "Word" and the meaning straightened itself out.

The thing about writing, no matter whether it's fiction writing or not, is that to generate writing you don't have to have any connection with reality whatsoever. You could literally spend the entirety of your life in a small house with no appreciable connection to the outside world and still produce lots of writing. People sometimes seem to think that there's some sort of mechanism that would prevent someone who had no experience of the outside world from writing stories that folks could identify with and understand, but nothing like that exists. People extremely isolated from the world may produce fiction that's distorted and unrealistic, but they can still produce fiction. The fantastic, distorted, nature of the sort of fiction associated with folks isolated from life points to the essential problem: while writing can be done by anyone, anywhere, in any situation, the legitimacy of the writing is undermined if there isn't a deep enough connection to actual real experience present.

Pure living is unreflective, and pure writing has little connection to reality, so in order to have some sort of validity to what you produce you have to involve yourself in some way with the subject matter that you're writing about. Yet, there's a twist to it all: not only can people write in whatever circumstances they find themselves, no matter what the actual experience they have regarding the subject, but if you are a writer, if you're drawn to writing, you want to write whether you actually have adequate experience to base your writings on or you don't. Burroughs said it in a short phrase of common sense: if you're a writer you by definition write. And you write because you like to write. This leads sometimes to people cutting corners.

The exact ratio between facts and writing based on those facts that is necessary for a very good story, fiction or not, is something that has yet to be defined. Also, even though it's fairly easy to judge whether or not a piece of writing is good, or a piece of thinking about a subject is good or not, there's not a parallel indicator in reality indicating if it's "real enough". How do you know when you've absorbed enough reality regarding a subject so that you know that you can intelligently write about it? How can you know that the subject that you're writing about really fits into the big picture like you think it does, and that it's not something other than you think it is?

What is in fact the essential structure of reality, or of social reality and human culture in all of its variety, extending down into nature itself? The sociological facts may be sobering.

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I'll get back to this subject.

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