“When Nothing Is Lost: Novel Writing and Henry James”
If you want to deepen your storytelling, consider this advice from author and essayist Henry James: Be a writer on whom nothing is lost. In the essay “The Art of Fiction,” James advises, “Write from experience, and experience only …”. He then adds, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” James is encouraging writers to look to their experience—in life and in writing—to inform their work. In other words, writers should use what they learn and not allow their experience to go to waste. This is great advice but with two caveats. First, it’s better to write from experience than with it—think fiction versus reportage. Second, if we’re to be writers on whom nothing is lost, we must observe and study the world around us (and within us), as well as our experience of it. This is what Bob Dylan meant when he described the creative process as requiring observation, imagination and experience. If we merge Dylan’s insights with James’s, we have something like this: Mine your past experience for the insights you’ve gained, and look for new experiences to keep your work fresh. To do this, don’t just see what’s in front of you; examine it. Then consider what you observe and how it applies to the world at large and the world of your story, freeing your imagination to create the story.
Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher, and co-author of Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA. Have a writing question? Submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.