‘the dilemma of every writer’

Saw the movie ASK THE DUST last night about a young struggling writer living in downtown LA in the 1930s. Afterwards I learned the movie was actually filmed in Cape Town, a tourist-attracting coastal city in South Africa — I’ve been there, I even set a scene in BLOODANGEL in a particular Cape Town hotel — and the idea that it could pass so convincingly for prewar LA bemused me. In the movie, not a hint of Table Mountain to be seen, which must have called for some strategic camera use.

Via letters, our young writer protagonist laments to his hero and mentor H.L. Mencken about his lack of experience in life and love. How can he possibly write anything? Mencken says something to the effect of — and I wish I knew the quote verbatim but here’s my considerably less eloquent paraphrasing of it: “You have now discovered the dilemma of every writer: namely, that you cannot be in two places at once. Either you’re not out in the world having experiences, but sitting in front of your typewriter being a writer, or you’re out in the world having experiences, which means you’re not in front of the typewriter writing. So you will have to do what all writers must: take what experience you have and figure out how to do more…with less.”

Slouched in my seat, I had to chuckle. I remember being in my teens and deliberately hunting down Life Experience for that same reason. Innocence, although valued in some circles, does not make for a particularly interesting writer, and I was ambitious even then.

At the same time, I don’t think (like many people seem to) that reading and writing seal you off from the ‘real world’; I think they connect you to it in deeper more powerful ways. The fact that I was an obsessive reader as a kid and the fact that my life to date has turned out so differently from anything anybody in my small hometown could have imagined, are connected. I was operating off a different frame of reference — one I got largely from books, not well-meaning high school guidance counselors or ‘concerned’ adults, who all wanted me to aim smaller in one sense or another. Your life experiences are richer for the reading experiences you bring to them; and vice versa.

So there you go. The paradox.

In some cases, less is more.

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