Erin Petti, also a writer worth checking out, wrote this magical post last week that I’ve been too busy to link to sooner. It’s about the ability of writing to share experiences across miles or milieus or generations. It’s quick and it’s touching, so nip off and read it.
If the serious (!) writing I’ve done as an adult has any consistent theme, it’s “nobody knows anybody, not that well.” There is a perpetual gulf between Self and Other that we spend our whole lives dealing with. Some of us retreat to our side of the gulf and curl into a ball. Some of us risk balancing on the edge to extend our fingers across. But the howling gap is always there.
Writing – like all forms of art – is an attempt to bridge that gap. It’s our best effort at translating the personal into the universal. This is what it was like to be there, says Hemingway in For Whom The Bell Tolls, says Picasso in “Guernica,” says Landis in Animal House, says Beethoven in his Third Symphony. When the translation is pleasant, we call it “escapism”; when it’s somber, we call it “literary” or “serious,” but the effect is the same.
It’s easy to take the idea that “nobody knows anybody” and wallow in existentialist sobriety. It’s certainly easy for me; I do plenty of it. And yet the writing of mine that I’m happiest with also finds the happiness in that theme. If nobody truly knows anybody, then that means everybody has the potential to delight you. George Axelrod refers to it, in his arsenal of narrative devices, as “the duchess trucks”:
[T]he audience loves it when the sinister character turns out to be lovable: “The duchess breaks into a jazz dance.”
So it’s worth remembering that the purpose of writing is to reach across the gap – or, as Erin says by quoting King, to travel through time. And it’s worth making sure that that extended hand leads you somewhere worth going.