Apr 5, 2018

two halves for the writer

I think a lot about this passage from an old Paris Review interview with John Updike:

I really don’t think I’m alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first eighteen years of their life. Hemingway cherished the Michigan stories out of proportion, I would think, to their merit. Look at Twain. Look at Joyce. Nothing that happens to us after twenty is as free from self-consciousness because by then we have the vocation to write. Writers’ lives break into two halves. At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey—whereas when you’re young, you’re so impotent you cannot help but strive and observe and feel.

I know exactly what he means, but when I read it, I think how lucky I was not to get a sense of writing as a significant part of my vocation till nearly age 40. How fortunate indeed—not to be so “impotent” prior to that time, but to be so much more fused with life, so powerfully and singularly in it and then have so much experience to look back on. So much to reconsider implicitly, all that striving and observing and feeling, as I go about giving form to ideas.

It’s a trade-off, of course, because it means I haven’t logged nearly the hours devoted to craft that I might have before now. And there’s more complexity in Updike’s passage, too—about the pitfalls of detaching from one’s experience by deploying the scrim of art, a trait that is surely mixed in its effect on living a life. Still: my book is not explicitly about my life much at all, but any insight or analysis will be deeply, implicitly fed by a longer accumulation of un-self-conscious experience. I have not until recently been in the habit of aestheticizing as a reflex, at least through language. The license and instinct to write came later.