By Chelsea, Bluegrass Writers Studio
Last month, I learned about aesthetics when author/professor James Sallis joined the Bluegrass Writers Studio in Lexington for a craft talk about art. Four pages of illegible notes and about halfway into the 1-hour talk, I realized why, in the middle of a week of well-done "how"s, this explanation of "why" we write seemed so appropriate: James Sallis is a good philosopher.
Sallis discussed the importance of reading across genres and the power of all strong literature to draw us into worlds—ways of participating in and representing one’s conscious experience—that are not our own. Good art takes us out of our own private worlds and transports us, even briefly, into another’s. To Sallis, the practice of writing is the closest we can get to “escaping our skulls,” to experiencing someone else’s reality.
Sallis’ advice for how to write follows from his conception of why we write. To write well, we must be able to see another world—whether a neighbor’s, a lost society’s, or a bat’s—from the perspective of someone whose ways of being in and representing that world differ from our own. To do this, we need to be able to imagine another’s phenomenal consciousness, what it’s like to be them. Appropriately, Sallis talked a lot about recreating this experience of a character’s life on the page rather than merely telling what’s happening to them. To expose the richness of another’s world, not only must we be able to see the plot unfolding—the things that happen to a character to move him from plot point A to plot point B—we must notice aspects of a character’s experience which are peripheral to the plot, perhaps things which matter in his world which would not matter in our own.
Sallis thus suggests we spend more time thinking than writing, actively visualizing our characters’ worlds and imagining what it’s like to be them. This practice is the closest we can get to experiencing another perspective, our best chance at catching aspects of the world we hope to depict that, confined to our own skulls and fully focused on the concerns (the deadlines!) contained therein, we would otherwise miss.
As the start of the semester approaches and the temptation to write zombie-style (but caffeinated) gets stronger, Sallis’ talk gives us a little more courage to stare down our flashing cursors and take the time to think before we write. The inside of my skull is currently populated by Google calendar boxes falling like Tetris blocks; I’m hoping the chance to peek into another world for just a little while will make all the extra thinking energy worthwhile. Thanks, Professor Sallis!
Published on February 02, 2015