The Placebo Effect

Oftentimes it’s hard to distinguish an author’s experiences from those portrayed in their writing. Storylines and characters run parallel to a writer’s world and we find ourselves sometimes trying to map bits and pieces back to their real life counterparts. Well, they do say “write what you know”.

LitKicks member Tulate recently offered this up for consideration:

“John Lennon swore up and down that he wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds about a drawing his son made in school. Meanwhile, I think I recall that UCLA actually offered a course interpreting the song which everyone assumed was a reference to John’s LSD use.

Lennon knew about LSD first hand and could certainly write a song about it if he so chose. I’m sure writers with no drug experience have written about acid trips too.

For a piece to be riveting, full of gut wrenching imagery, able to evoke deep emotion — does the writer need first hand experience? Or is reality over-rated? Does the fiction writer using good research, vivid imagination and poetic license get higher marks than the guy who’s actually been there and done that and is now writing fiction adorning factual accounts with beautiful, moving and precise words?”

19 Responses

  1. examplesThat’s a good

    That’s a good question, and I’m trying to think of examples of classics by authors who couldn’t possibly have knowledge of what they were writing about…

    1. Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro. A very good book about World War II Britain, written by a Japanese author

    2. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. It’s a popular misconception that Tom Wolfe was there with Kesey and gang. Actually, all he did was interview them and ride with them after the events in his book took place.

    3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert’s famous line is “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. However, he must have been using at least some of his imagination.

    Based on these examples, it appears a writer can do just fine by not writing what he or she knows.

  2. GeeWell, I hate questions

    Well, I hate questions like this. I am am not trying to be rude, and I am not trying to make fun of or poke fun at anyone’s intelligence. Look, there is no one set-in-stone anything! It is all in the eye of the beholder — no right, no wrong — I think it is more that my brain is a loop, but I don’t think there is one answer to this, and we should talk about people’s opinions and not trying to figure the “truth” becuase truth is not objective –ever…

    SO what do I think about it?

    I think that Tom Wolfe’s book

    ELECTRIC KOOL_AID ACID TEST is boring – but some people call him a great! Right. I should have loved this book, but Wolfe came across as what I think a phoney is-I am sure some people think that I am a phoney — some people don’t think being phoney is a bad thing.

    When you ask what is going to better, or what is right, or ask what the color blue looks like, I do not know what to tell you but my opinion — opinion is not a fact, and really there is no such thing as anything being anything.

  3. La realite est surestime.I
    La realite est surestime.

    I never went to White People School. I never graduated from high school. I’ve never taken an English course in my life. The chances of my taking a writing workshop are slim. I have no idea how to write anything. At times, school districts have hired me (I needed the money) to teach writing which is absurd but in White People Town absurdities abound.

    I do not not know what a verb is. I do not want to know what a adverb is. I do not care. I do not know what an adjective is. I do not know what an adverb does (does it do anything or is it just there). I could care less.

    I do not know the rules. Even if I did I would not follow them. The very idea of following the White People Rules is ghastly. I do not want you to tell me the rules and if you do I will put my hands over my ears and sing songs and I will refuse to listen.

    I do not know where to put a comma. I do not know what a comma really IS. Periods elude me.

    Fiction. What is fiction. Nonfiction. What is nonfiction.

    I do not know. I do not care to know.

    I know this: No matter what, the earth itself could be falling apart around me, and usually it does, but it matters not because I sit down, I pull my hair out by the roots, and I write. Every day. About twelve hours a day seven days a week fifty two weeks a year period.

    No matter what.

    People have died in the next room and I don’t really care. I’m busy. Writing.

    WHY write. I have no idea. Not a clue. It’s what I do. Usually in English. I just assume I mangle it.

    So. What.

    I don’t care. I do it anyway.

    ONE DAY in my bizarre life could be an entire memoir. An hour. Perhaps.

    Nothing stands still. Certainly not writing. It has LIFE. I do not know why. I do not care why.

    Fiction. Nonfiction. I have no idea what these words mean.

    I know something you probably know, too. YOUR reality (I like the way the French say it, pesky critters, the French) is probably not MY reality.

    I know something else you do not in all probability know. I would bet my left testicle that you are more than willing to JUDGE my reality and hang all sorts of definitions on it. Like road signs that say: go this way, go that way, don’t get lost.

    I know something you might suspect. Getting lost is the best thing a writer can do. It is the unexpected.

    Throw all your fictions books out. Throw all your nonfiction books out. Especially the ones from Regan Books. Burn them. Burning books is good.

    Discover getting lost. The unexpected. Would it be fiction or nonfiction.

    I would have no idea. I don’t know where to put a period, remember.

    Fiction is nonfiction and nonfiction is fiction.

    Judith Regan is publishing the memiors of the “Runaway Bride.” I can hardly wait.

    Will it be literature or will it be manure dung from a very large and stupid cow named Judith Regan. Time will tell. Fiction? Nonfiction?

    Fiction. Nonfiction. Reality or How To. I love White People Publishing. It’s sort of white, like White People Town where we have the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the Cheshire Cat wonders, “Who are you.”

    I’m the box, you see; just shovel it in me and I’ll regurgitate it out.

    Reality in publishing?

    Excuse me, I’m coughing. Someone just took that left testicle. Isn’t Reality in Publishing an oxy moron.

    Realite. Est il que vous pensez c’est. Ou ‘est. Vrai.

    The French will know. We must inquire of them. They know everything. — Nasdijj

  4. Nasdijj — I think we’re all
    Nasdijj — I think we’re all with you here.

    One thing I wanted to say — I don’t think white people are the root of the problem here. The way I see it, what’s choking one people is choking all people. Anyway, I sure do respect the way you express yourself.

  5. Kazou Ishiguro was mostly
    Kazou Ishiguro was mostly raised in Britain so it wasn’t a big jump for him to write the book, and, though he had no first hand knowledge of the historical events or the older generation, it wouldn’t be such a big jump for him to write about the subject because he’s more British than Japanese. I listened to an interview about the book with him and Don Swaim and base this opinion on that. His writing Remains of the Day is no more a leap than if I wrote about the original punkers and it was all over–the original punk backlash–by the time I started to gain first hand knowledge of it in ’79 when all I did was witness poseurs, the Clash included, though they did write some good songs.

  6. Personal Reality as Subject
    Personal Reality as Subject Matter

    Except for Marcel Proust, any writer who only uses their personal reality as subject matter will run out of material sooner or later unless they have such an interesting lifestyle that constantly offers them new advenures or meeting new interesting people to use for characters. Paradoxically, to be authentic, a good author needs some firsthand knowledge of the world, e.g., The Red Badge of Courage’s combat scenes were based on the author playing football.

  7. I Write What I Didn’t Know I
    I Write What I Didn’t Know I Knew

    Anyone who has ever been out on a literary limb knows the feeling. If you have ever written a scholarly, ahem . . . term paper, you know what it is to write about something “you don’t know about” (BTW, I have nothing against white people-just the ones with MFA’s).

    The hesitation, the self-questioning (Is this accurate? Can this be documented? Will I be exposed as a fraud when someone reading this knows more than me?) are a superfluous ball and chain.

    A writer who writes what he does not know is a journalist at best- or an eloquent bullshitter taking up the time of the few readers there are left. I’m one of those idiots still stuck on honesty; anyway why add more aggravation to a process a sportswriter, of all things, (I cannot recall his name) described as, “…easy, just sit in front of a typewriter and open up a vein.”?

    “Getting Lost”, to me, means to be stranded in a place you at one time felt was worth finding. Wanna get out in one piece? …Use the tools you have . . . Don’t have the right ones? …Find them, or make them. By the time you’re home they’re yours.

    Reading what you said about writing made me go to my bookshelf to find Robert Duncan’s line:

    “salmon not in the well where the hazelnut falls,
    but at the falls battling, inarticulate, blindly making it.”

    I don’t know much more that.

    Just questions:

    Why does passion seem to be a natural quality of the “oppressed” . . . real or imagined?

    Is the experience necessary for the description?

    Will you let me get away with, “Being at Auschwitz was like a Bad Acid Trip”?

  8. Respectfully and conversely,
    Respectfully and conversely, adventures and characters worthy of note are consistently under your nose.

    Dostoevsky’s major subjects weren’t larger than life, but he twisted the seemingly mundane events that bewildered them into apocrypha; many of them not dissimilar to ones you and I face- every work-a-day.

    I wonder if this attitude toward the writing process had anything to do with Hemingway’s eventual demise?

    [“Too old and tired to track down the kill, might as well turn the barrel around.”]

    Stephen King said people come in and out of your life like busboys. As far as I can tell there’s a story everywhere, if you’re a storyteller.

  9. I did not realize this… I
    I did not realize this… I had read some interviews with the author about his cultural leap in writing this book, but it wasn’t known he’d grown up in the UK. That does seem to nullify his place on this list, I agree.

  10. The Proust effect is
    The Proust effect is something all writers must watch out for. But I think it is not only an interesting lifestyle, but also an interesting inner voice, that can make an introverted writer’s work eternally interesting. If the artistry or originality is there, we will keep reading just for the pleasure of reading, even when there is nothing new being revealed.

  11. What I think happenedMy guess
    What I think happened

    My guess is that John Lennon’s son drew a picture and said, “This is Lucy in the sky with diamonds,” and John got to thinking about it and thought, “Ga, those initials could stand for LSD.”

  12. I agree with Diagnostage that
    I agree with Diagnostage that “there’s a story everywhere, if you’re a storyteller.”

  13. I think most non-fiction is
    I think most non-fiction is whatever version of the facts those in power decided to release.

  14. “Ga?” At any rate, Lennon was
    “Ga?” At any rate, Lennon was impulsive and often said things that revisted him later on making him dance a little. The famous “We’re more poplular than Jesus” statement is an exmaple. I doubt Lucy in the Sky was an after-thought. My guess is he intentionally gave the song its drug overtones knowing he’d have to use the my-son-drew-it excuse once the press geniuses got to it. And to answer my own question, both styles of writing can be equally moving. Placebo or the real deal, a good writer is a good writer. The argument then becomes who is a good writer? Man I don’t even want to go there.

  15. She saidThe song She Said,
    She said

    The song She Said, She Said on Revolver was about being under the influence of LSD.

    The human experience is universal, so one can write artistically about some things without direct experience.

    Is literature ever real?

  16. I’m going to say..In order
    I’m going to say..

    In order for a piece to be very realistic, and right on, I think the writer should have some first hand experience with it, or at least been “around” what they are writing about. I’ve been in the situation of writing of something that happened to me, but people think its fiction, and say “wow that seems so realistic.” I’ve also written stories of things that have happened to me, and gotten other reactions, such as “anyone can write about (insert subject here), but you could make this more exciting/interesting by doing this” so I don’t always get a great reaction even if the stories were true. I’m not very good at writing exciting, vividly detailed stories about things that didn’t happen or things I am not familiar with, but others are sometimes. So it will be different for every writer, some are very talented at writing about places they’ve seen, experiences they’ve never had. I don’t know how they do it.

  17. Proust-likeYes, John Lennon,

    Yes, John Lennon, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Marcel Proust, and many others including even Bill Burroughs and Hunter Thompson used material on hand. If your inner life is interesting, your outer life will reflect it in your writing and music. Thoreau used an experience in a log cabin. I have used experiences of my own.
    I step up to the line, or plate, and peer into the sun and live life as it needs to be lived day to day. “All is vanity…”, saith the Lord…” To continue a paraphrase: “There is nothing new under the sun,so be happy in your work and gird your loins against the coming of the dawn…”

    Yes, the Bible has some good-uns too. Look into the “Book of Job” and so on…Look at “Ecclesiastes” which was written with tongue in cheek supposedly by Solomon.

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