Thursday, August 16, 2012
Empathy and Reality
I was struck, after my two hours plus fully conscious operation for a detached retina (gory details in Latest News: www.chronometerpublications.me), how doctors must inflict pain to do their business. Also that, in the main, they will have little idea of the depth and variety of pain that a patient suffers. The best they can do is empathise. Maybe we wouldn’t want them to fully comprehend and feel our suffering at their hands. It might impede their cool professionalism and disinterested decision making. Emotional doctor? Probably not.
When it comes to writing, the picture changes. Travel books are enormously popular. So are cod historical fictions with a researched background such as The Da Vinci Code and remarkable classics such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. People read them knowing that the writer is giving a first hand account of his or her experiences. Autobiography in all its forms is exceedingly seductive.
So, is out and out fiction better for the writer having experienced what his or her protagonists are being put through? Is the fact that I have had the eye battle more likely to improve my depiction of suffering, generally? I think so. Having read some Joseph Conrad recently, it seems likely that his books are enormously enriched by his experience on the oceans and rivers of the world. But having had extreme experiences does not make a great writer, per se. It is how the writer can them move on and apply the essence of such experiences to events they could never have encountered, themselves. For example, Sci Fi writers have not experienced space or time travel but something in their biographies may provide the raw material for it. William Golding’s sea trilogy is based upon general knowledge of the history of the colonisation of Australia by British immigrants plus the reading of a single manual on ships of that period. But Golding could then infuse his refined understanding of human psychology within this exotic canvass.
William Blake suggested that you can see the world from the bottom of your garden. We write from our histories, whether limited or expansive, but the greatest literary imaginations can utilise personal experiences like cookery ingredients, making an array of cakes, varied and delectable and extraordinarily different from the originals. They combine empathy with reality.
When I wrote Azimuth, there was much of it that was based upon my growing experience in a natural pre-internet world – but transmuted into fable, adventure and action that bore little relation to my biography.The pain that the Magus suffers at various points in the trilogy is probably better expressed because of the pain I once suffered. Maybe I could now write it even more grippingly after recent events!