Nathan Ballingrud is a remarkable short fiction writer who has won the Shirley Jackson Award and had his work reprinted in year’s best anthologies. I first met him at the Clarion Writers Workshop in 1992. Pertinent to our discussion of “Chasing Experience,” I remember that the first day he locked himself in his dorm room and
typed furiously for a couple of hours. Suitably intimidated, we all thought Nathan was incredibly committed to his art. But, as he told me many years later, in fact he wasn’t typing anything: he was just nervous about meeting the other writers attending the workshop. Although Nathan talks about experience in the context of “genre” writers, I believe what he says is relevant to all writers.
(This week, by the way, I’m in the Carolinas speaking at Wofford College, Malaprops, and a Barnes & Noble in Burlington. Check out the full schedule for details.)
You’ve actively sought out experience for the purpose of using it in your writing. When has that proven successful, and when less so?
Well, it’s not quite as specific as all that. I didn’t, for example, seek out certain varieties of experience so that I could write about them. Rather, I sought a more general life experience as a corrective for an extremely insular childhood. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I was very under-developed both socially and emotionally in my early twenties, when I finally struck out on my own. I knew it, though, which was lucky. I was reading a lot of genre material – having discovered it much later than most people seem to—and felt that it suffered from a fairly narrow perspective. I imagined—perhaps unfairly, perhaps not—that most of its writers were well-educated, generally comfortable middle class folk, with the bulk of their own experience coming from a fairly specific stratum of the socio-economic spectrum. I didn’t think about it in such specific terms, of course; it was more instinctive than that.
I reacted with hostility. The genre stories I was reading didn’t connect with my life at all. The people I knew were knocked about by feelings of rage, pain, and loneliness, which made a lot of SF and fantasy ring false to me. I was attending UNC when I started sorting through all this, and I quit shortly thereafter. I felt a self-satisfied disdain for the whole university system; there was smugness involved, I can’t deny that. I moved to New Orleans within the year, with the intention of working menial jobs and exposing myself to what I imagined was a more immediate, more “real” sort of life.
In that respect I was successful. I feel more comfortable as a writer because of experiences I had due to the choices I made then. This is not so much because of specific things that I did or that happened to me, but because I left one kind of life and entered into another, populated by different people and often guided by different principals. It gave me access to new perspectives, which was what I was looking for.
What were some of the more harrowing examples of seeking out life experience, if you don’t mind sharing. What did you learn from them?
I don’t know that I’d qualify any of them as “harrowing.” There were times I was scared, but in retrospect I probably didn’t need to be. I did cocaine for a while—this was long before my daughter was born, I hasten to add—and I remember one night my friend claimed he’d just ripped off the dealer, and he spent the next hour pacing around the apartment with a gun in his hand, convinced the guy knew where he lived and was coming for him. That was pretty scary. For a while I was a cook on offshore oil rigs and barges; on my last trip on a barge we got caught in a tropical storm, and the ship was pitching so violently that we couldn’t cook because everything was sliding off the counters and the stove. I went out onto the deck in the middle of it and stood at the railing, watching the storm. It was exhilarating and extremely stupid. Later, I learned that the water we were in was shallow enough that the captain was worried we’d slide down into a wave’s trough and break the hull against the ground. I was too stupid to be scared in that instance.
But most of the experience came from mingling with people I’d been conditioned to ignore or even to shun when I was growing up. Not by my parents, but by societal norms. I’ve never paid for a prostitute, for example, but I’ve known several, and I lived with one for a while, who was a very dear friend to me. I was friends with drug dealers and with cops, and would listen to them tell their stories over drinks on many, many nights.
But when I talk about having sought experience, I’m not talking about swimming with sharks, or climbing Everest, or anything inherently dramatic. I’m talking about ranging well outside your comfort zone and immersing yourself in a lifestyle that scares you at first, because of its difference and its strangeness, and getting to know people you’ve been conditioned to think of as throwaway people, or as corrupt people, or sometimes only as “those” people. Because what you gain is a broadened perspective. And I believe that’s one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. We have to learn to look outside of our own lives. And if we can’t do that, we need to change our lives. Sometimes in disorienting ways.
Would you advise writers to manufacture experience where they have none?
Some kinds you have to manufacture, and some kinds you can’t and shouldn’t. Specific, physical experiences, sure: whitewater rafting, engaging in a fistfight (although there will be certain details unavailable to you unless you actually do experience them, but that’s unavoidable). But in the sense that I’m talking about, I believe that manufacturing the experience will produce flawed work. I won’t say don’t do it—I don’t feel morally or ethically capable of telling anyone what they can or cannot write about—but I feel that a lack of personal experience, and the perspective and empathy that experience provides, will be obvious to most readers, and will ultimately subvert the readers’ trust. I think this is what is meant by the dictum, “Write what you know.” Write what is within your emotional experience, what is within your ability to empathize honestly and directly with.
At what point does the imagination take over from “reality” in writing fiction? And is it as simple as letting time elapse between an event and writing about it?
In my own case, reality is usually just a backdrop, or a jumping-off point. It informs the actions of the imagination. I’ve yet to transcribe an actual event from my life into a story, but I’ve drawn heavily from emotional experiences. And in those cases, yes, I do need time to pass before I can write about them. When they’re fresh, they’re too raw, too vast, and the impulse to capture every last nuance is difficult to overcome. That leads to a lot of over-writing, which is always embarrassing to encounter later on. I have to allow time to pass so that the immediacy of the feeling subsides. That way I can examine it more objectively and sort what’s useful from what’s excessive and distracting.
When you look back at your short fiction to date is there a disguised autobiographical narrative in the stories? At the paragraph level? Level of scene? Or…?
To an extent, yes. Some of it overt, some of it less so. Usually it’s not specific to a scene, although that’s not always the case. I’ve drawn a little on my experiences as an offshore worker or as the owner of a painting business to inform some of the characters in my stories. I exaggerate certain qualities in myself—anger, pettiness, anxiety—so that I can prosecute them in a fictional context, and maybe achieve some kind of catharsis. Or at least remind myself of the bad places they can take me, if I let them. I’ve discovered that I write a lot about issues of masculine identity, about men who fail to live up to their own expectations of what a man should be. I never thought I held those notions myself—I’ve always congratulated myself as a more enlightened person than that—but by reading over my own stories it’s obvious to me that I’m trying to come to terms with the great distance separating me from what we seem to want men in our society to be, however outdated or absurd those expectations are.
I tend to be pretty confessional in my stories, even if it’s only on the metaphorical level. I love reading stories in which I feel the author has a personal stake; that’s the kind of writer I want to be. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it if you’re not trying to reveal something fundamental of yourself.
Can you tell in someone else’s writing when they’re bullshitting and trying to write about a situation or setting they have no real experience of? Where’s the lack or the tell?
I like to think so, but the truth is probably not always. If I have no experience of my own to compare it to, I suspect I’m easily duped. Usually there’s only a risk if your reader knows more about it than you do, in which case the “tell” will be suffused throughout the text, in a half-dozen wrong details, or just the lack of a few right ones.
And actually, I think we’re seeing bullshit called on the whole genre right now, in the matter of race. I believe the field has been so insular for so long, the question of an honest and accurate depiction of any culture other than white middle class culture was just never given a lot of consideration, at least not on a systemic level. Not by more than a handful of writers. And I doubt this was conscious; I think it hearkens back to a narrowness of perspective—a lack of real experience with any culture other than the dominant one. I suspect that the feelings of bitterness and frustration that seems to have caught everyone by surprise are not new; it’s just that the internet has given readers a means of communication on a scale that didn’t exist before, and a lot of these writers are being called out on a problem they didn’t even know existed. Liberal politics are not a cover for a limited perspective.