Is Experience Overrated? One Writer’s Checkered Résumé

October 27, 2015 | 5 books mentioned 10 7 min read

work

After two years of college I dropped out because it was a waste of time and money. Since boyhood I had known I wanted to be a writer — a real writer, a novelist — and after 14 years inside classrooms I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to get out into the world and start harvesting the stuff novels are made of, a substance so vital and valuable that it became the title of a memoir by the great Martin Amis. I’m talking about experience.

By the time I left college I had worked any number of jobs, which are a form of experience in that they send us into the world and force us to figure out how to survive there. Beginning at an early age, I had delivered newspapers, caddied, worked as a bar boy, a dishwasher, a busboy, a bartender. But now I believed I needed something more daring, something more artistically remunerative. The way to have something worth writing about, I reasoned, was to have adventures. This meant two things: plunging into unfamiliar worlds and traveling.

I wasn’t the first aspiring writer to come to this conclusion. Surely Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have written his stories and novels if he hadn’t fished the rivers of northern Michigan, seen combat in the First World War, lived and loved in Paris, hunted big game in Africa, watched the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and battled marlins off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway’s fiction lives on the page because it’s grounded in physical worlds he knew intimately and was able to describe with spare beauty. Other writers I admired had pursued lives of action, from Herman Melville to Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and even Henry Miller, though his adventures were decidedly more seedy than swashbuckling.

Given all this, I was delighted to land a job as a farmhand in Vermont a week after dropping out of college. The place was a sort of nursery for broken-down thoroughbred racehorses from nearby Green Mountain Park, the last stop for many of these nags before they were turned into dog chow or glue. The huge, jittery horses terrified me, but I found I loved the manual labor — baling hay, digging post holes, cleaning stalls, putting a roof on a barn — and above all I was thrilled to be accepted into a raffish blue-collar crew that consisted of a ham-faced Vermont farmer, a hard-drinking cowboy with a broken leg, a petty-criminal greaser who had his eye on the foreman’s hottie teenage daughter, and a gifted old black trainer who nowadays would be called a horse whisperer. I knew I wouldn’t have met any of these people if I had stayed in school.

When the racing season ended I pocketed my $500 life savings and drove my wheezing ’54 Chevy pickup cross-country, then proceeded to work a string of odd jobs up and down the West Coast, in kitchens and vineyards, dairy farms and orchards. At night I worked on my apprentice novel — a murder story set on a Vermont racehorse farm. I threw the manuscript out, of course, but the experience wasn’t a waste. It taught me how far I had to go before I would be able to consider myself a beginner, and it led me to ask myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working minimum-wage jobs to support my writing. The answer was no.

coverIt was at about this time that I discovered a remarkable non-fiction book by the short story master Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which stunned me with this insight: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”

This turned my world upside down. If I wanted to become a novelist, according to no less an authority than Flannery O’Connor, I didn’t need to wander the world harvesting experiences. I needed to figure out a way to get paid to contemplate experience and then write about it. The best way to do that, I guessed, would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter and serve my apprenticeship in the typhoon of a daily paper’s city room. My father had done this. So had Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Tom Wolfe, and countless others. But this was the aftermath of Watergate, and I knew it would be impossible to land a coveted reporter’s job without a college degree. So I sold my ’54 pickup, took a bus back across the country, and returned to college to finish my final two years.

coverIt ended up working out — eventually. After graduation I spent five months knocking on doors at newspapers until I got my first break, a cub reporter’s job on a Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania tank town, starting pay $140 a week. I was, just barely, a professional writer. More newspaper jobs followed, as a reporter and columnist at bigger papers. I kept writing fiction on the side, sometimes giving up the steady newspaper paycheck to travel and work as a magazine freelancer, a New York City bicycle messenger, a construction worker, a Nashville disc jockey. Once, when particularly hard up, I even worked as an “actor” in a porn movie. As justification for this dubious career move, I turned to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:

Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich.He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bellhops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post cards in little bookshop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physiog in the company of these élite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread.

My apprenticeship wound up lasting a lot longer than I’d expected: after my college graduation, 16 years passed before I finally published my first novel. When a second followed, I quit my last full-time newspaper job and supported my fiction writing with freelance assignments from anyone willing to pay me — daily newspapers, glossy magazines, college alumni magazines, this and other websites, the rich friends of a rich dead man in need of an upbeat obituary. It has been almost 20 years since I saw my last steady paycheck, and in that time I learned that no writer can afford to be choosy when it comes to earning his daily bread.

In those years I also published a third novel and finished several that haven’t found a buyer. Writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I’m still alive, I’m still paying the rent every month, and I’m still writing every day, which is the thing I most love to do.

My big mistakes, I now realize, were to equate adventure with experience and to believe that the writer’s job is to be merged in experience. There’s nothing wrong with adventure, for writers or anyone else, but as Flannery O’Connor taught me, it’s unnecessary for a writer. She rarely left her home in Milledgeville, Ga., and Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom. They understood that the writer’s business is to contemplate experience, and, just as important, to realize that all experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be put to use. The experience of spending a day alone in a jail cell would hardly qualify as an adventure, for instance, but it’s an experience that could make for a rich short story or novel, in the hands of the right writer. The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.

covercovercoverAnd then there is what Martin Amis called “main-event experience” in his memoir Experience, the ones that put us through the emotional meat grinder. I have experienced my share of these, including the death of both parents, a sibling locked in a fight with addiction, lost friendships and loves. These are not uncommon experiences but they’re powerful, and they’re definitely worth contemplating, for writers and everybody else. The reverberations of main-event experience are the gold mine.

There’s also nothing wrong with including the experience of work in fiction. The wheat-threshing scene in Anna Karenina comes immediately to mind, as do the gorgeous horrors the poet Philip Levine found inside the Detroit auto factories where he worked as a young man. But as I look back at my checkered résumé, I see that the only job that directly fed my published fiction was my time as a bar boy in a suburban Detroit country club during the summer of 1968, a year after the city was ravaged by a vicious race riot. My experience of working amid rich, white auto executives and black waiters from the inner city made its way into my third novel, Motor City Burning. That’s not much of a return on an investment of so many years. All writing is in a sense autobiographical, but the point is that unless you’re writing baldly autobiographical fiction à la Henry Miller or Proust or Karl Ove Knausgaard — which I am not — you will probably not profit much from your work experience. Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.

Come to think of it, I wish my résumé wasn’t nearly as long as it is. Given how little I’ve been able to use my work experience in my fiction, I’ve come to see all those thousands of hours of working to pay the rent as time that could have been more profitably spent writing, or reading, or contemplating my experience. But few writers are born rich, and few people who are born rich become writers, so I realize I don’t have any right to lament my middle-class fate. It’s hardly unusual, and it could be so much worse.

All I can do, all any writer can do, is figure out a way to get someone to pay me to write. And keep contemplating my experience. And keep writing about it, every day.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevan.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

10 comments:

  1. Perhaps the breadth of land traveled, and variety of jobs pursued are less key than the frame of mind of the writer, and the depth of perception of his mind. I think of Keats, sitting in a boring lecture while still medical school, who talked of “becoming one” with a beam of sunlight shining through the room, shot with dust motes.

    His “negative capability” was of such great power that he could feel himself rising from his physical body and traveling along the light beam. That’s a lot of negative capability.

    The day labor required to make money may have more significant value in its necessity (for most) to bring in the income to buy the food, shelter, and other needs to keep the writer’s creative mind within a fed, warm body!

    Lots to ponder.

    Maureen Murphy

  2. Thanks for this.

    This emerging American writerly class gets me all tangled up inside. I can only imagine what it must feel like as an undergraduate to simply know that writing won’t be part of some other job by the time the degrees are earned, dried and framed, but the job itself. So that must be envy on my part.

    But I’m deeply skeptical, too. Though the world has undoubtedly changed since Walt, Ernie, and Lucia Berlin were out knocking – and getting knocked – around, it hasn’t changed that damn much. So how could anyone write anything worth reading if they’ve never/rarely ventured outside their timezone, peer group or core curricula, or off their meticulously structured career path?

    Bill, your experience strikes me as the best of both worlds: filled with starts and stops, doubts, mistakes, and meandering – you went down the only path that could have worked for you. Seems it has. And does.

    Moe Murph – *ut fit* – has, with ‘negative capability’, simultaneously rebooted my vocabulary and captured this quite wonderfully: “Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.”

    Can I get an ‘Amen’?

  3. This was a phenomenal post — got way more than I expected. I, too, assumed that adventure was found “out there” somewhere — certainly not in the confines of my room. As you said, “The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.”

  4. I’ve worked as an editor of fiction for, yikes, 35 years now, and the only generalization I’ve been able to come up concerning writers is that I there are no useful generalizations. It’s all about talent and temperament. I will say that three of the finest writers I ever worked with never had much in the way of brawny out-in-the-wide-world experience. Paul Auster did ship out on a merchant vessel for a trip or two, but I suspect his real formative influences came from his family history, his education (Columbia and self-) and serving for a spell as Samuel Beckett’s secretary. Don Delillo worked for a few years as a copywriter, first at Ogilvy and Mather and later as freelance and some of that experience is clearly reflected in his first novel, AMERICANA.. But he really was formed by simply being a mid-century New Yorker and the aesthetic experiences on offer in that time and place — MoMA, art films, top-drawer jazz. David Foster Wallace had almost no experience of the world outside of academe; his art was made from the plain brilliance of his imagination, his verbal virtuosity and his titanic struggles with his inner demons.

    Go figure.

  5. Maureen, il’ja, Danita & Gerald:
    Thanks for your close readings and thoughtful comments. I think Mr. Howard summed it up masterfully: “The only generalization I’ve been able to come up with concerning writers is that there are no useful generalizations.” Yes yes. There are no blueprints, either, no right way or wrong way. There is only the fact that every writer must figure out the best way to get his or her words on the page. Thanks for reading The Millions.

  6. This strikes me as a deeply classist outlook. Who can afford to avoid experience? …those who are funded, that’s who.

    Once a funded writer has gained their voice, is it okay for them to use that voice to speculate on experiences completely disconnected from them? No–just, no. I am deeply mistrustful of writers without life experience.

    This may be the first time I have ever disagreed with Flannery O’Connor.

  7. @il’ja

    Glad you enjoyed; speaking of vocabulary, have to go off now and figure out what *ut fit* means!

    To Bill Morris, looking forward to following on for more comments, have enjoyed your essay and the ensuing dialog very much!

  8. Such good stuff. This riffs off Mr. Howard’s comment, but anyone who can instruct me, I’d be grateful.

    I wonder whether Paul Auster’s ‘lack of experience’ doesn’t show? I’ve always struggled with his writing because it feels to me like something unfinished, the part missing being the ‘real’ bits. This isn’t a knock on experimental lit, the avantgarde or modular writing, but the end result leaves me cold.

    All this is on me, no question. But reading Auster puts me in mind (very broadly) of too much bad, post-war, soviet academic fiction (and post-soviet fiction, come to think of it). Where’s the empathy? Even empathy fostered from externality / distance? Maybe he could have used another decade as a merchant marine?

    I mean, if everything’s a symbol.

  9. Some follow-up to the discussion yesterday (actually woke up at 4:30 a.m. thinking about this piece!)

    “Lately, I’ve become obsessed with travel, internal and external. Jan Morris, Alain de Botton, and Cynthia Ozick have all written about the enhanced perceptions of travel. They can hit anywhere, a familiar Welsh landscape you’ve lived in for years, your own bedroom, or in the strangely alien winter light of Stockholm. Is it a matter of miles roamed? No. I once did admin for a high-powered tax lawyer, who put together renewable energy deals where tax credits were packaged and bartered like so many bales of hay or pork bellies. He jetted from South Beach to Aspen, San Diego to Lisbon, the Alps to Marseilles. Invariably, if he spared a moment for small talk when he got back, and I hungrily tapped him for details, he’d say ‘I was busy.’ He was a focused man, not a wanderer, thus explaining his success.

    I’ve met great travelers within the boundaries of DC, with whom I journeyed to Russia, Ethiopia, Japan, while never leaving the city limits. This essay kicks off my stories about these people.”

    [From RUSSIAN DAYS – M.A. Murphy – 2002]

    Pardon the huge chunk of pasted text above from an older essay of mine. It was the only way I could think to open this! I am fascinated by the fundamental idea of “experience.” Can one person conjure up an entire enchanted island from a grain of sand through the power of imagination?

    Just a few numbered entries below on the idea of the “journey” through life and writing.

    a.) I think Flannery O’Connor was engaging in some wonderfully Celtic embellishment for dramatic effect with her comment on the experience of simply “surviving childhood.” This is really more of a way to emphasize her conviction that contemplation of experience was much more key to the writer’s life than the number of airport lobbies the writer has jogged through.

    On a slightly different track, in his terrific literary blog “Tredynas Days,” Simon Lavery recently commented on the effectiveness of Mark Twain’s use of the illiterate register in “Huckleberry Finn.” http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2014/12/jayne-joso-soothing-music-stray-cats/#comment-309702 The limited nature of the character (which I would relate to the limited life experience of a child) is “filtered” through the register of the adult artist.

    b.) What of those upon whom their culture (2015 Afghanistan, Regency England) enforces a severely circumscribed life experience? How about those natural recluses (Emily Dickinson as Exhibit A) who are happy to ponder a tiny universe within their own cottage estate? A profound understanding (and, once again, contemplation) of a small village of souls may lead to deeper art than a shallow tour of all the world’s glories. Just think of my poor tax lawyer above! Finally, Flannery O’Connor herself retired to her farm in Milledgeville, GA at 26, sadly stricken with the lupus that would take her life at a tragically young age.

    For a fascinating study of Afghan women and their stories today, see http://www.internews.org/our-stories/project-updates/30next/young-afghan-women-find-self-expression-digital-storytelling

    c.) Finally, just loved Gerald Howrad’s comment above:

    “David Foster Wallace had almost no experience of the world outside of academe; his art was made from the plain brilliance of his imagination, his verbal virtuosity and his titanic struggles with his inner demons.”

    That comment is the most succinct example I can imagine of the sheer mystery of the artistic process.

  10. @il’ja:

    I’m late in seeing this comment, but, Good Gawd, it made my toes curl with its accuracy:

    “I wonder whether Paul Auster’s ‘lack of experience’ doesn’t show? I’ve always struggled with his writing because it feels to me like something unfinished, the part missing being the ‘real’ bits. This isn’t a knock on experimental lit, the avantgarde or modular writing, but the end result leaves me cold.
    […] reading Auster puts me in mind (very broadly) of too much bad, post-war, soviet academic fiction (and post-soviet fiction, come to think of it). Where’s the empathy? Even empathy fostered from externality / distance? Maybe he could have used another decade as a merchant marine?”

    @Gerald Howe and MM:

    ““David Foster Wallace had almost no experience of the world outside of academe; his art was made from the plain brilliance of his imagination, his verbal virtuosity and his titanic struggles with his inner demons.”

    But we can’t help but notice how relatively quickly DFW’s well dried up (euphemistically known as “writer’s block”) , at the end, as a result. Beware the solipsistic Ouroboros of a powerful literary Imagination feeding only on itself…! Very few (blinded Borges among them) can pull it off.

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