Borges and Writing and Life

I’ve been more productive at writing the last few days than I’ve been in quite a while. Not cranking out novels, mind you, but behaving in ways that resemble what I was doing a year or two ago—writing enough for three or four blog posts a day and then some, plus some stuff that won’t find its way to the blog. That being the case, and because I’ll be otherwise occupied off and on in the next few days, I decided to schedule a few pieces to post automatically early in the morning. This is the first such early morning piece, written long before it posts.

The other day, as I stumbled through excerpts of well-known writers’ reflections on writers and writing, I came upon something intriguing. A recent post from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings made me stop and take notice. She writes of a gathering Jorge Luis Borges organized in October 1982 at which Susan Sontag spoke to a reporter who covered the event. Sontag said, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer … Very few writers of today have not learned from him or imitated him.” Of course Borges has been dead for more than thirty years now, but I think Borges’ influence remains strong. I’ve not read enough of his work; indeed, I’ve read very little of it. But what I’ve read has, indeed, been influential. And what I’ve read about Borges and the comments about his work from others has been influential.

A particular comment attributed to Borges struck a chord: “All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” Those misfortunes include all the personal traumas, large or small, that we encounter throughout our lives. It’s as if, as writers, we’re being fed a constant diet of new resources from which to choose to include in our work. It’s all source material.

When I write fiction, I write from experience. The experience need not be real, though. It can be imagined experience that sprang from combined past experiences that occupy just the right spaces in my brain at just the right time.

I’ve never tripped at the edge of a cliff, my heart in my throat,  falling in panic toward my oblivion on the rocks a thousand feet below. But I’ve tripped on a sidewalk in the direction of a concrete curb that, had I hit it with my head, could have killed me. The panic I felt in an instant as my face raced toward the sidewalk informs my senses enough that I can translate that experience into an imagined experience in which I’m hurling toward the cliff’s edge. As Borges said, “our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments” are raw material for what we write. In that vein, I try to look at my every experience as fuel for what will eventually feed the pages I write. I try. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes, I cannot distance myself from my ugly experiences to the extent that I can think of them as opportunities. But I can look back on them and file them away, expecting they eventually will make their way to a page.

Other quotes from Borges make me laugh. The following comment, though apparently spoken in frustration at having been overlooked for years for the Nobel Prize in literature, struck me as remarkably clever: “Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me.” I can honestly say that sounds like something I might write.

Another comment from Borges seems to get at my perpetual question about who am I, at my core, stripping away all the influences on me: “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.” I am not sure I exist, either. The way Borges put it, none of us do. We are not individual beings. We are simply formless vessels filled with sponges that, as they soak in experiences, fill out into the shape of whatever it is we define as who we are. Put another way, though Borges’ comment was sufficient, “I am simply a mirror, reflection of the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve been through.”

No, that is too simplistic, of course. That perspective suggests I have no control over who I am and that I am being created in the image of the world around me. I believe we have control over who we are. That is to say we can’t blame our failings and our foibles on experience. We have a responsibility for taking our experiences and molding them into who we wish to be within the context of the resources available to us. But there’s no question our experiences and the people with whom we interact combine to shape the people we become and continue becoming throughout life. I am not the person today I was as a young man of twenty-five. I am not the person today I was when I was forty-five or fifty-five. The person I am today is not the person I will be ten years hence.

Obviously, I’ve gotten a bit off track. That’s okay, as far as I’m concerned, because it allowed me to think about certain things in ways uncommon to me. I feel better when I’m curious and exploring ways of satisfying that curiosity.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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