Experiaunce – writing it without living it

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me

Says the Wife of Bath. She says it as a sort of challenge; in the high middle ages, even as feudal and ecclesiastical monarchies reached the height of their power and culture, the groundwork was being laid for future class struggles, and for the activity known as natural philosophy, that later became known as science.

When, on the October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, the modern age began, with the idea that thought alone can challenge authority.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the  Canterbury Tales over a hundred years earlier; European man took a long time to shake of the shackles of the likes of Galen and Aristotle; shackles whose name was 'auctoritee'.

Today, throughout most of Western Philosophy's diaspora, you can call any idea into question with a well expressed challenge; you can seek to disprove any theory through experimentation; we give way to experience more readily than we do to authority (or at least we should)*.

It is time to get back to the cowshed:

We all know that milk comes from cows. But there are those who know this as a booklearn'd fact, and those who know this as an experience.

If an author has to write about events that take place in a cowshed, how much knowledge of cowsheds does he really need?

We can (all too easily) imagine what would happen if a Roger Moore era James Bond had to battle the bad guys in a cowshed. It would be one of those big, shiny, stainless steel semi-automated milking parlors. Mooks would get milking cups attached in intimate places, a face full of feed granules and, presumably, finish up in the slurry gutter. To write this, you'd only need do a little research on the equipment and layout; no direct experience necessary.

If the hero of your Regency RomCom tries clumsily to seduce a milkmaid, the cowshed is a very different place - though there is surely an abundance of fresh cowpat with which to humiliate him. Even so, the cowshed is more likely (in the words of Burt Baldrick) to conform to a romantic ideal, rather than a true depiction of a Regency cow shed (which was much more industrial than you are probably imagining).

If the protagonist of your gritty epic of the struggles of an early Twentieth Century Irish peasant has to rise two hours before dawn everyday to make his way in the pitch black to the lea to collect his three Kerrys to the shed and milk them in darkness... well, I suggest you might need to know, for instance, how hot the milk is as it comes out; what the teats feel like; how your hands feel afterwards. Those are things that I suggest, you can't write about unless you have the experience.

For a great many things, authors rely on the secondhand experience of what they have read. Authors write about the atmosphere of the milking shed based on other authors' writings.

I'm not going to say you should not do this. But any author must be very clear with himself, about what is first hand experience, what is secondhand, what is purely imaginary (James Bond's milking parlor) and what is a romantic ideal. Anyone who has ever been punched on the nose by someone who really meant it knows what that felt like and is in a position to write about it in detail. Anyone who has never been punched on the nose really can't know, either as a reader or as a writer. Remember when you write about Mick having to win a prizefight to buy back his Kerry cows that his brother lost in a rigged wager, that when Mick gets his nose rebroken, if you don't feel it, those readers who have never had their noses rebroken** won't have a clue what it's like.

Thats where the problem lies. The closer you want the reader to feel, the closer you have to write; to write close to an event or an experience, you have to know, really know, what it's like.

Thought experiment:

Imagine a man who has never had sex writing a sex scene between two women***. Now imagine a man who has only seen two women have sex in mainstream pornography writing a sex scene between two women. And so on. How close can a male writer get to writing this scene convincingly? Here's the real power of writing: if he reads a lot of lesbian romances, he can get pretty close; close enough to satisfy many women and at least convince his lesbian readers that he's made the effort. Even if (possibly even, especially since) he is still a virgin after all that.

To come full circle; some of us are good at writing with an air of authority; an air of authority convinces a lot of people. Some of us have a lot of very broad experience, and can put that experience into our writing. But an air of authority or an air of experience is just an effect (an epiphenomenon if you like) generated by the hard work that goes on underneath; hard work that I argue, starts with the author asking himself a hard question: how much do I really know?

Did this post seem authoritative? How much of what I said did you assume I already knew. I had to look up:

  • the spelling of the first line of the Wife of Bath's Prologue
  • Chaucer and Martin Luther's dates
  • the name of the Church where Martin Luther nailed up his theses
  • the dates of Galen and Paracelsus (who got cut from the post)
  • the names of the equipment found in automated milking sheds
  • the name of a traditional breed of Irish cow

An air of authority comes from knowing exactly how much you  know, and how much you need to know. An air of experience comes from knowing what you are writing from direct experience and what from secondhand or more distant.

* and indeed there are those who abuse this by acquiring authority by giving an impression of experience. 
** I'm told it hurts less the second time.
*** now, stop it! you aren't supposed to imagine the scene.

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