With eyes wide open

We’re blogging this week about writing advice, and my favorite piece of wisdom is an oldie but a goodie, and is something I’ve applied both to my writing and my life:

Be a person upon whom nothing is lost. 

This is paraphrased from the venerable Henry James, seen here looking like a big old bag of fun:

The longer quote, published in his essay, “The Art of Fiction” in 1884, is here:

“The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it–this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only,” I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!””

I take this to mean that a writer should always have her eyes open, but also her ears, her nose, her stomach, and her heart. When moving through the world–to Trader Joe’s, the veterinarian, the neighborhood potluck–have all your senses alert so that you can later write with all five, describing the soft beep of the card reader, the musty smell of guinea pig woodchips, the sensation of chewing warm, fresh chapatis.

But I mention having an open heart as well because I think that, to be a good writer, we have to leave our judgements off the page to the best of our abilities. This is hard of course–some people are the worst! But George Saunders once said that he always tries to ask how he could love his characters more, in what ways he could deepen his empathy for them, and I think that’s a wonderful goal to have: to get to the point in a draft where I love my characters in spite of their flaws, where they’re real because they’re the worst…and also, in their way, the best.

Moving through the world with an open heart also means trying to see all the way through people, taking in both who they appear to be and who they are, who they allow others to see, and who they don’t even allow themselves to see. This requires quiet and compassion, and it’s not at all easy to do. Over the years, in trying to take in more of the world and be a better writer, I’ve gotten to be a better listener, and a better observer. And I think (I hope), inculcating this compassion has also made me a better person, someone who’s more able to put her judgements aside and find something to love in everyone.

So thank you, Henry James, for being my unwitting life coach. And may we all dedicate ourselves this summer to tasting, smelling, feeling, and loving it all!

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.