Last night, Dusk Peterson sent me a paragraph by Robert Silverberg about his “growing up” as a writer after a major loss to fire. While my apartment didn’t burn, the smoke and other damage was extensive enough that I lost a good 2/3 or more of my possessions, not even counting all the furniture. Unlike Silverberg’s loss, a great deal of my research and all of my drafts of finished and unfinished work was on my computer, which I did save, or in the cloud. Still, that kind of loss changes you in ways you can’t anticipate, or even understand until you’ve had time to absorb it and be able to look back at it objectively.
“I was never the same again. Until the night of the fire I had never, except perhaps at the onset of my illness in 1966, been touched by the real anguish of life. I had not known divorce or the death of loved ones or poverty or unemployment, I had never experienced the challenges and terrors of parenthood, had never been mugged or assaulted or molested, had not been in military service (let alone actual warfare), had never been seriously ill. The only emotional scars I bore were those of a moderately unhappy childhood, hardly an unusual experience. But now I had literally passed through the flames. The fire and certain more personal upheavals some months earlier had marked an end to my apparent immunity to life’s pain, and drained from me, evidently forever, much of the bizarre energy that had allowed me to write a dozen or more books of high quality in a single year. Until 1967, I had cockily written everything in one draft, rolling white paper into the machine and typing merrily away, turning out twenty or thirty pages of final copy every day and making only minor corrections by hand afterwards. When I resumed work after the fire I tried to go on that way, but I found the going slow, found myself fumbling for words and losing the thread of narrative, found it necessary in mid-page to halt and start over, pausing often to regain my strength. It has been slower and slower ever since, and I have only rarely, and not for a long time now, felt that dynamic sense of clear vision that enabled me to write even the most taxing of my books in wild joyous spurts. I wasted thousands of sheets of paper over the next three years before I came to see, at last, that I had become as other mortals and would have to do two or three or even ten drafts of every page before I could hope to type final copy. . . .”
Which got me to thinking. We all know that old saw about writing what you know. Never been a policeman? Then you shouldn’t create a character who’s a policeman. Nonsense, of course. We know that’s what research is for. But there is a way in which the saw is true, and Silverberg brought that out for me. Writers do need emotional experience, because that’s something you can’t research. If you haven’t experienced pain or loss, you’re not going to be able to write about it convincingly.
And that’s where many young writers fall down. Note that Silverberg listed all the things he hadn’t experienced, along with the emotions that would have accompanied them. Possibly, losing so much in a fire hit him harder than it might have because it was his first traumatic experience and he had no experienced emotional response to fall back on. Possibly. I remember reading that Aldous Huxley had a similar loss and simply walked away from it. But people also vary in their vulnerability and their ability to adapt, so that’s not necessarily a valid comparison.
After a traumatic dry spell of more than three months, I’m at work again. I’m continuing the revision of an almost-finished novel, and also preparing to write a completely new one next month. Right now, I feel that I’m back to my usual form. That may be accurate or premature. Only time will tell.