There is a Flannery O’Connor quote that’s befuddled me since I first heard it:
“Nothing needs to happen to a writer’s life after they are twenty. By then they’ve experienced more than enough to last their creative life.”
When I was nineteen, this seemed really appealing. “One more year!” I thought. “One more year and then I don’t need to worry about experiencing, I can just worry about writing.”
Well. Now I’m twenty-two. I look back at my nineteen-year-old self and just see a naive (shocking, a naive nineteen year old) kid taking every bit of information he came across at face value.
Now, I find myself hoping that Flannery O’Connor was dead wrong. There are many, many things I’ve yet to experience. Things that will help shape me as a writer.
Some days I feel like I haven’t done anything worth a damn, let alone worth writing about. I’ve travelled. I’ve been to Europe. To Africa. I’ve lived on both coasts of the country. I’ve fallen in love, fallen out of love, fallen back into love, etc. I’ve read most of the books I felt or was told I was supposed to read. I’ve experienced a decent amount of what this world has to offer, but the list of things I’m still completely and utterly clueless about remains longer than the list of things I’ve got a decent handle on.
I’ve never held a baby, never lost a parent, never been in a car accident. I’ve never seen a friend get married, never helped a friend through a divorce, never been married or divorced myself. The list goes on, on, and on. I may never (hopefully) experience some of these things, but it’s inevitable that a portion of them will occur sooner or later.
Beyond the list of things I’ve never done or experienced, I can’t help but feel like taking O’Connor’s words too literally would discourage a writer from going out and living. It’s easy to think “oh, I want to write—I must lock myself up in some dimly-lit room filled with books and sever my connections with everything on the other side of the door.” There’s an appeal to doing that. And it is okay to go full-hermit every once in a while. But if you shut the door and lock it at twenty—and you lock it for good. Then you’re missing out on a hell of a lot of life. Yes, Emily Dickinson spent her whole life in one room. Yes, Salinger was a recluse. And yes, Pynchon keeps the tradition alive. But think of the Hemingway! Think of Twain! There is life to be lived and places to see, and to stop worrying about experience at the age of twenty would be a grave, grave mistake. I’m sorry, Flannery, but there’s a world out there that I, at the over-the-hill age of twenty-two, intent to enjoy.
Some of the best writing I’ve done has come just from going out and being in this world. The most fruitful inspiration has struck me at the most unexpected of times. Layovers in small satellite terminals of LAX. New Year’s Day brunches. Ferry-rides to Alcatraz. All of these events occurred after the age of twenty.
There is a definite paradox in living a writer’s lifestyle. There is the necessity of aloneness, solitude, a room of one’s own to accomplish the work that needs to be done. But existing entirely alone, entirely in a room of one’s own (a certain color wallpaper comes to mind) isn’t enough. How can one describe mountain’s he’s never seen? How can one tell a love story without ever having been in love? If you’ve never seen the vastness of an ocean, you won’t be able to do it justice with words. There are billions of people to meet and almost two hundred countries to visit. If you ask me, there’s more to write about out there than there could ever be behind one desk, in one room.