17 sept. 2011

Personal Experience

Personal experience is a horribly flawed way of reaching valid conclusions about reality. Nobody is a representative sample of anything significant, except by accident. You cannot go out in the street and find a "typical person." For example, I might conclude from my own experience that violent crime does not exist in the US. After all, I have never been the victim of such a crime while living here for 50 years. Zero percent of people I've met, Black, Latino, Asian, White, have sexually assaulted me or mugged me. Amazing. I might also say that the common cold is a rare occurrence, that it is easy to publish in the PMLA, that shaving one's face every other day is sufficient, that coffee does not cause insomnia, etc... After all, these statements are true of me. I could also explain how rock and roll is dull, but flamenco is pleasing to the human ear, or why even the strongest coffee requires no sweetener, why pitchers' duels are fascinating...

Yet, of course, but despite the extreme limitations on individual perspectives, we are very interested in people's personal stories. I would suggest that the main interest lies in their atypicality, or in their very curious combination of seemingly typical experience and wholly idiosyncratic outlier stuff. The statistical sample leading to the "average person" produces a kind of bland view of things.

Students often seem bland to me, because what they write is generic. They give me a standard view of things, not what they really think when that is stripped away. On the other hand, bloggers like Clarissa or Z always have something interesting to say because they are very much themselves. It doesn't even matter whether I agree with any particular statement they make or whether I think their personal viewpoint is generalizable to any other human being on the planet. Who cares?

Maybe that is why I am a not a great reader of fiction. Real people seem more interesting to me than generic agglomerations of character traits assigned to random proper names. You couldn't invent a fictional character as interesting as anyone I know because that wouldn't be "realistic."

6 comentarios:

Clarissa dijo...

Thank you, Jonathan! This makes me very happy. :-)

Rimi dijo...

"Maybe that is why I am a not a great reader of fiction. Real people seem more interesting to me than generic agglomerations of character traits assigned to random proper names."

I would suggest, Jonathan, that you have not read very many good works of fiction, and this surprises me, given your profession. I read plenty of very annoying fiction myself, but I'd hardly generalise my annoyance to all fiction.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Writing about personal experience can be a way to develop writing skills, and later even a way to begin an essay, but at some point you have to get beyond personal experience if you want to be making claims about "knowledge" rather than "faith," in a "critical" rather than "evanagelical" environment (to use a distinction Thomas B recently made).

Jonathan dijo...

Rimi: I guess you are a new reader to this blog. There are many fiction writers I admire and I have read a lot of excellent novels. I was being partly tongue and cheek and partly self-deprecating. I still don't find the main attraction of fiction, even the fiction I like, to be complexity of characters, where real life beats fiction almost always.

Andrew: I agree completely. That's what the first part of the post was about. Personal experience is a horrible way of basing claims about the world. We are subject to 1000 cognitive biases, the main one being being stuck in one's own skin for the entirety of a lifetime.

Leslie dijo...

OK then, I've put up another rebel post and it is called "Laughing and Singing."

I am so tired of the personal experience lead-in to essays, or the anecdote about an individual lead-in to journalistic pieces, I want to just snip these out, the technique is so hackneyed.

If you are going to write about yourself, the individual, or someone else, the individual, you should carry that through the whole piece. If you can't, you're not writing, you're just in a chat room.

If you're writing about a general phenomenon or one that applies to a group of people, start by talking about the phenom. Give examples, citing yourself and other individuals, sure, but get to the point. I love stories for themselves but I hate it when they are used on the theory that otherwise the reader won't be able to read and understand.

Professor Zero dijo...

Ho hum, logged in wrong again and there is no way to log into this site that leads to my actual posts. Maybe if I log in in some correct way, I can erase the comment above, which was posted under a confusing name.

Anyway, I've put up another rebel post and it is called "Laughing and Singing."

I am so tired of the personal experience lead-in to essays, or the anecdote about an individual lead-in to journalistic pieces, I want to just snip these out, the technique is so hackneyed.

If you are going to write about yourself, the individual, or someone else, the individual, you should carry that through the whole piece. If you can't, you're not writing, you're just in a chat room.

If you're writing about a general phenomenon or one that applies to a group of people, start by talking about the phenom. Give examples, citing yourself and other individuals, sure, but get to the point. I love stories for themselves but I hate it when they are used on the theory that otherwise the reader won't be able to read and understand.

Z