In response to a study that suggested that reading literary fiction might improve one’s social skills, novelist Louise Erdrich said, “Writers are often lonely obsessives, especially the literary ones. It’s nice to be told what we write is of social value.” However, I would still write even if novels were useless.”* We writers are eager to believe that what we do has some value apart from giving readers a chance to waste an afternoon every now and then. But what stuck with me when I read this was not the core idea in the study, encouraging as it might be, but Erdrich’s characterization of writers as “lonely obsessives.”
I was doing errands this morning, out in the world buying parts for a broken lamp and the fixings for baked ziti and after my last stop I piled into the car, put the key in the ignition, and tried to turn the beast on. I couldn’t get the key to turn for a moment. I withdrew the key and looked at it because in my errand running haze I thought for a split second that I had picked up the key to the other car, also a Subaru, which would explain why it wouldn’t turn. But of course, such an error was impossible. I was not at home and that was the only key I had. I jiggled the steering wheel and voila, everything returned to normal. Except me.
Because I started to pay attention to what had happened inside my head. I wasn’t worried about the foolish mistake. I wasn’t worried at all. I was intrigued that my mistaken idea occurred to me as image. That is, a visual of the other set of keys popped into my consciousness as an explanation for my little difficulty. And I rejected that explanation immediately. Like I said, the error and the correction took place in the shortest amount of time, way too short to have conducted any of those small and rapid mental operations in language. It was only later that I went through the comparatively laborious process of finding words for all this.
And of course it makes sense that immediate experience precedes the words. Before our species could speak, we were animals fully equipped with excellent sensory apparatus. Indeed, each of us recapitulates in our infancy that journey our species made from not speaking to being clever users of language. The words, to some extent, are a way to capture and then perhaps communicate raw experience. You might say that language is an experience-processing program.
But we do more with language that speak it. We also listen to it, write it and read it. And when we do those things, it is as if the entire process is reversed. Instead of taking raw sensory experience and translating—if that’s the right word—it into a code accessible to anyone who understands the specific language that appears on the page or screen, writing is a way of using code to create experience, albeit second hand or virtual or vicarious.
Now, no one would claim that experience mediated by language is the same as the immediate and real thing. That’s why going to France is more fun than reading travel books. But for many of us, it might be the case that the experience we have as a consequence of reading, especially reading, occupies as much space in our personal memory or, what can I call it, Rolodex? hard drive? as the real thing itself. Take, for a couple of examples, Abraham Lincoln and Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet. Anyone today thinking about those two figures will conjure up images, feelings, memories, and so on. But no one today has ever laid eyes on either one and in the case of Hamlet, no one has laid eyes on him ever, not even Shakespeare. Are they real? Well, we know Lincoln lived because we believe the people who tell us he did, which is perfectly reasonable. (It’s nutty to deny all of history and geography, science and whatever else simply because you haven’t had first hand experience of it). So, we can say that Lincoln is real. But what of Hamlet? My guess is that he’s better known than Lincoln and yet he never lived in the same way. And yet he’s real, as real to us today as Lincoln—which is odd since he’s fictional—only more famous.
At last, both Hamlet and Lincoln and so many others and so much else we know exist as images in our minds that were first simply words, simply language, sounds or marks on the page out of which we conjure meaning. I find this all quite remarkable and I know that whatever thinking I am capable of on this topic is rudimentary compared with those whose life work it is to study our relationship to language and meaning. I know that, but I’m still swept off my feet by a flashing image of keys, and by the idea that Hamlet, that fraud, that fiction, is vividly alive for perhaps millions.
Sometimes I think about baked ziti and then sometimes I think about stuff like this. I’ll not write about ziti and you may find this dull or odd or commonplace. I don’t know. I do suspect that I think about language because of my own writing and maybe, as some have been kind enough to suggest, I need to get out more. Again, I don’t know. Perhaps this is one of the things Erdrich meant by “lonely obsessive.”
My own fraudulent, fictive figures can be found in the novels I’ve placed on Amazon as Kindle books. Look for them here:…*(…)