There is a moment in reading something terrific where we lock in. One minute, we are people holding books, and the next we are transported. This phenomenon, the forgetting of the self, is what I’m in it for.
How does it happen? There’s an idea out there that this particular magic occurs when the prose is tethered to reality. A writer channels her life, and the words gain power. There’s something to this idea. I’m reading now Nina Renata Aron’s spectacular memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls (how’s that for a title, right?). In it she writes: “Every few days, I’d clean our bathroom, wiping with Lysol-drenched paper towels the delicate spray of dried blood that lay over most surfaces and reminded me of the spatter of colored dye on the outside of a jaw-breaker, the first layer that makes a white paste in your mouth as you suck it away.” Stunning, yeah? And I do believe Aron could not have written this line had she not cleaned blood or eaten a jaw breaker.
But we find passages of such stark detail in works that are not based on personal lived experience as well. In, for example, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, the author writes: “The beating room had a bloody mattress and a naked pillow that was covered instead by the overlapping from all the mouths that had bit into it. Also: the gigantic industrial fan was the source of the roaring, the sound that traveled all over campus, farther than physics allowed.”
(sorry that blood is the theme here—I’m picking out vivid moments, and blood is vivid.)
Whitehead’s book is about an abusive boys’ reformatory school in Florida which is a fictionalized version of a real school, but which Whitehead certainly did not attend. I want to go back to what I said about Aron, and to her words. Although I’m sure she’s eaten a jaw breaker, and cleaned blood, that doesn’t mean that the jaw-breaker image occurred to her while she was doing it, or every time. Writing, even memoir, is not documentary in the way that a film or a newspaper article is. And even if works draw on lived experience, the alchemy of how that lived experience makes it to the page is unpredictable, unquantifiable. The magic, that way words can transport you, happens because of words, that Aron chose to put the jawbreaker image there, with its suggestion of innocence, but also violence (jawbreakers are a pretty violent candy, yeah?) that’s how the magic happens. And, for sure, Whitehead did his research and collected details, but then he made them language. He chose ‘naked’ to describe the pillow, with its suggestion of vulnerability which also speaks of the boys’ vulnerability. Experience filters into work, but not directly, and always through the medium of language. In my next post, I’m going to talk about some unexpected ways that my real experience filtered into The Likely World and some ways it deviated from reality.