Wednesday, November 4, 2015
F: 3:15 a.m. Is this leading to anything? Or is it just more wasted work? It had better lead to something, there isn’t anything else I’m doing.
Papa? I re-read McLendon’s book that was written in 1972. As usual, I hadn’t remembered things quite right. Also, I wasn’t as impressed by the book this time around and found inaccuracies.
EH: That’s the normal progression when you read a book. First there is what you learn, and you fit that in with what you already knew, and the things that bother you are being paid for by what you are learning. But the next time around, when you have already absorbed what the author has to give you in facts and interpretations and just general life-viewpoint, you notice other things more. It’s natural. But as to remembering things wrong, facts can be checked. It is understanding that is important.
F: You wouldn’t have said that [while] in the body.
EH: And I wouldn’t have said it for me. But there’s a difference. You aren’t me, you aren’t doing what I did. For one thing, you aren’t a story-teller. For another, you aren’t focused on the physical world. Those are two huge differences. You are working as carefully at depicting the facts you see as I ever did, but it is an entirely different range of facts. Yours are the facts beyond the physical appearance, or – well, it is difficult to find the words for it, and I wonder if you can, yourself.
F: You’re taking me into unknown territory, here.
EH: You know how I told Max I couldn’t write about Conch life until I knew how everything fitted together? You remember my needing to know how pelicans fitted in? That’s the same with you. You’re trying hard to understand how the picture fits together, and you continually see that you don’t know enough.
Well, there are facts that matter and tell you something, and other facts that are just incidental and don’t matter. The thing is, you have to look at them to know which is which. When you know for sure you aren’t going to learn anything from some line of inquiry, you drop it, because a man only has so much time and energy, and what you spend on one thing you don’t have for another.
Now, in my life, as you know, I read everything, I threw myself into everything, and I lived so intensely I burned myself out, and that part was fine with me. I don’t mean the accidents or the war and the toll they took, but living like a filament with so much juice running through that it was always on the edge of burning up, that was my life. But you’ll notice, I didn’t care about everything. I didn’t throw myself into whole categories of things. How could I throw myself into everything? Nobody can. So I lopped off whole categories of experience and never missed them. You didn’t see me writing about high finance, say, or a scientist’s life in the lab, or medicine, or farming. A man can’t know everything, and what he does know comes from what he is drawn to, and what he examines for the love of it.
Now – this last paragraph is the kind of fact you pursue, you see? It is, in a way, abstraction. You might say (well, you wouldn’t, but plenty of people would) that it is “nothing but” generalizations. It doesn’t cite chapter and verse of anything that happened or could be checked specifically. It doesn’t give you dates or times or places or dialogues or incident. You see? It is a different order of facts.
F: But you certainly reported that kind of thing, the emotional reality of life.
EH: Not “emotional,” precisely, but sure, of course. The thing is, your iceberg and mine are pretty nearly inverse, or reciprocals. I set out facts, dialogue, details – physical details I mean – and the reader had to put it together or miss the point. If they could and did put it together, they would understand what had happened emotionally or really you might say spiritually with the characters and within the situation. In other words, I was always describing the invisible elephant in the living room, the only way it could be described, because it was invisible. That is why my stories had impact, even among those who misunderstood them. To do that, though, I had to place every detail in exactly the right proportion. Every word had to help create exactly the right effect. I had to go over it and over it, rewriting, pruning, looking at it sixteen ways, to wind up with only what I wanted. And the longer the story the more delicate the balance, the greater chance I wouldn’t hold that atmosphere. One wrong step and it would all fall flat. So, you look at “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and you see about five novels’ worth of experience put into one story, and the tension of all that juggling makes the story. It would have worked even better if not for people trying to guess how much of it was biography, but even there, it worked. It was a piling on of emotional fact, in that case, by referring to events almost abstractly – because he was remembering them – and the end was one of my strongest stories.
That kind of juggling –
Well, let’s put it this way. Sometimes you report on a new category of fact and for the first time people see that it’s worth reporting on.
F: I’m not sure what you mean.
EH: I was fortunate. I was sent to those Russian authors right away in my life – as soon as I got to Europe, I mean, and started haunting Sylvia’s bookstore. You haven’t read Turgenev, so you don’t know why I was drawn to him or what I got from re-reading him. It was a way of looking at life, a way of spying on life and reporting on it. And the same with Tolstoi and Dostoevsky and the rest of them. They were writing about life, just as everybody else was, but what matters is what you include in what you report on. If you are the great Henry James, you report on a certain mannered world and maybe you do it very well, but it struck me as about an inch thick and of no practical use, less use than the day’s gossip. But the Russians didn’t report just what happened, nor what happened plus what the characters thought and said, they included what it looked like to God, you might say.
F: I’m not sure I see that. They were great explainers. They weren’t at all like you in the way they wrote.
EH: No, of course not. Dostoevsky hardly knew how to write a novel, you could say. But he knew how to create a world and report on it, and that is what I learned. Raskolnikov lives and because he lives you learn something about a world that otherwise might have been closed to you forever. There is a difference between skill and wisdom and having something to say and knowing how to say it – and there is a difference between all of these or any of them, and just living. If you can’t encompass it, you can’t convey it.
F: This day’s entry has gone off in a direction I didn’t expect.
EH: When all the rest of it, you had it planned?
F: Very funny. But you know what I mean.
EH: You learned a long time ago, the only thing a writer has to offer is either new facts or new interpretations. I am trying to show you the value of and the nature of new interpretations. You see? It is a pouring of understandings into yourself and changing them by interaction with what you are, and thus inevitably resulting in a new interpretation. That’s what people do, just, they don’t always realize it.
F: It sort of turns the value of fact and interpretation on its head.
EH: No, it extends the range of what should be considered facts. You could generalize and say that what makes a civilization is what it considers to be fact. Caesar did not write his history in the same way an American would, nor an Italian of the 20th century either. His range of facts and yours, or mine, are different. It is the overlap that makes it at all possible for us to communicate, and the overlap that functions to translate the unshared values and perceptions. But mostly he and we live in different worlds.
F: Except from the inside.
EH: Well yes. That’s the point, isn’t it? Except from inside. But you can’t expect to find the same kind of facts from the inside that you would find from the outside. For one thing, you don’t want them and don’t care about them except as reassurance. For another, they are going to be only peripherally related to the core of what you do want, and so in effect they are going to be farther away, less distinct. What was your phone number in 1965?
F: I see your point. The fact that I may not remember it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
EH: And it didn’t mean it is important that you remember it. But you remember anything that happened that year that was important to you. Either you remember it freely or you remember it when it is brought to mind by some associated memory. We’re going to need to talk some more about this, but this will have to do for now.
F: Yes, we’re past our hour. I get the feeling that we didn’t quite clinch the nail, here.
EH: Well, everything here is a first draft, remember. For me as well as for you. It isn’t Scripture.
F: Okay. Till next time, then.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015