Toni Morrison’s Beloved is among my ten favourite novels. In this marvellous fictional dream Morrison transported me into a world that was completely unfamiliar, yet I was utterly convinced that every detail was accurate, every nuance correct. I never had a moment of doubt that the characters, the events, the tragedy were misconceived in any way. It was quite perfect. You will understand then, why I take Morrison’s wisdom to heart.
There is a stock piece of advice dispensed to new writers: write about what you know. But a writer who has completed her apprenticeship and who is now approaching her masterpiece must take Morrison’s counsel: imagine what is not the self. It sounds so simple, but in this hyper-narcissistic age who among us routinely reveals an empathetic spirit—even if he possesses one? The mavens of Hollywood, Nashville, Washington or Wall Street? Hardly. True empathy requires self-effacement, humility, a belief that other people deserve to be heard—or better—understood. Artistic empathy makes even greater demands: to create convincing, imagined worlds that are beyond the self. This is the “artistic space” where new discoveries are made.
To familiarize the strange. I do love this invocation, this challenge to bring a new dimension into words so powerful that the reader feels it in her bones. In my new work-in-progress, Exit from America, I’ve being toying with the experience of meditation, trying to figure out how to make this “strange experience” (since many people have never meditated) seem familiar. After acknowledging that the task is impossible, I decided to try a narrative simulation, to break the experience of meditating into a sequence that leads to “empty consciousness,” that fullness of being that is no-thing located no-where in no-time. The best I can hope for, it seems, is an engaging experiment.
To mystify the familiar. Brushing your teeth, sniffing a whiff of smoke in the air, penciling the last word into the daily crossword. James Joyce built empires from daily experiences like these and tied the simplest rites of passage to centuries-old myths. Who can read Anaïs Nin without learning something new about lust and sexual passion? Or read Hemingway’s fishing stories without touching the pulse of nature? These writers have discovered the mysteries in life—and miracle of miracles—they have revealed them in their work.
This, certainly, is the test of their power.