On Writing (About) Experience
Three recent events—reading Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, watching Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and spending two months in South America—have sparked an interest in ideas of experience and their relation to, above all, writing. However, before the three events were even thought of let alone considered together post-fact, experience was not an uncommon topic in daily life, and not only for myself but also, it seemed, humanity in general. There was a sort of range of experience which began with the most concrete and terminated with the least concrete. Perhaps closest to the former was that sort of experience which related to the word experiment, the doing or trying of unfamiliar things. On the far end of this fragile range was/is the experience which relates to no specific verb, where experimentation has no certain place. This is the realm of Experience, the sort referred to in statements like, “Gain some Experience.” Somewhere between these two poles lies the sort manifested in the statement “I had an experience.”
This simultaneously concrete and artificial system of demarcation emulates formally the fragility of the range. What, if anything, fundamentally separates the three given types of experience, which we so easily and insistently separate in speech and writing? One might very easily argue that any moment, regardless if it results from any conscious choice to try or do something uncommon, is a new, authentic experience. Furthermore, it seems that Experience, which we undoubtedly revere and seek, need not be absolutely rooted in new- or uncommonness. At a certain point, which may be its formal realization, it is stripped of these roots, or perhaps severs them.
As writers, it seems that formal realization both motivates and authorizes Experience. This relates closely, though perhaps not explicitly, to writing fellowships and the choice of many (myself included) to delay attending graduate writing programs. Our perspective is limited and common. Get some Experience, goes the saying, So you’ll have something unique to write about (formally realize) afterward.
It would be disingenuous to say that I did not consciously conceptualize going to South America as an opportunity to gain such Experience before doing so. Even now, when I am asked to briefly encapsulate my time there, I often say, albeit with reluctance, “It was a great experience.” I realize that I don’t exactly know what this means, and though my inquirers are sometimes left a little dissatisfied by the statement’s generality and vagueness, there’s something else in it—wonder, possibility, mystery, etc.—which usually overshadows their dissatisfaction. Furthermore, time will almost without fail modify this statement; that is, if they were to later remember/be reminded of the experience in question, it would not be my lame declaration which would remain, but the fact that, as a result of my experience, I had gained Experience. It seems this progression is almost automatic, and undoubtedly expedited by some realization—in my case, writing—which responds to or draws from the pivotal event.
The other two events have further complicated this schema of e/e/Experience. In watching the film and reading the novel, I have completed the progression: I tried new things, and that trying—which is hazily though crucially changed to “watching” and “reading,” at a point—was an experience. And that experience affected me in such a way that I may say I gained Experience from it. Furthermore, The Darjeeling Limited and Leaving the Atocha Station are relevant on another level, as the both are concerned with ideas of experience. The former depicts three brothers traveling in India who, after having not seen each other for over a year, try to reconnect through various shared experiences. They are explicit about and apparently successful in this effort, but spend little time exploring or discussing the e/e/Experience schema. Nor does Anderson seem to do so formally, and the film remains as a proponent for experiences and Experience in the traditional and revelatory sense. Leaving the Atocha Station, on the other hand, is critical of the schema, and several passages are dedicated to exploring its workings. The narrator is a poet on fellowship in Madrid who, toward the end of the novel, must decide if he will remain in Spain after the fellowship has finished. When comparing life Madrid to that in the States, Experience becomes a critical issue:
“this, I would say to myself, referring to the hemic taste of chorizo or the aromatic spliff or both of those things on Teresa’s breath, this is experience, not because things in Iberia were inherently more immediate, but because the landscape and my relation to it had not been entirely standardized. There would of course come a point when I would be familiar enough with the language and terrain that it would lose its unfamiliar aspect, a point at which I would no longer see a stone in Spain and think of it as, in some essential sense, stonier than the sedimentary rocks of Kansas, and what applied to stones applied to bodies, light, weather, whatever” (163).
Two important and already-touched-on aspects of the issue are addressed here: uncommon- or foreignness as a catalyst for Experience, and the formal realization of this Experience through writing or language. Lerner’s italics are more than tonal, and do not differ fundamentally from mine; they symbolically represent Experience—or, more accurately, signal the impossibility of such an effort. The choice is self-conscious of its cheap- and imperfectness, and the narrator realizes that Experience cannot be represented purely through language.
One may argue that this can be extended to writing in general, that language ultimately fails, regardless of the subject. But Experience is different, for as writers, we seek and revere it like the Sublime. In common language, thoughtless though at times it may be, we betray our subsequent efforts to harness and represent it. Yet the resulting failure endlessly propels us, and we compromise, explaining our subject as, most commonly, foreign or new, be it stones or films or books or continents. If we are to live in language—and to so many people we do or will, we hope—nothing can stand as too abstract or untouchable. Or, if not, we must admit that nothing can authentically and completely exist through language, save the words themselves.