The dangers of leading a literary life

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • March 28, 2013

What’s the protagonist’s motivation? What’s the tone of this piece of writing? What are some of the major themes of the text? As silly as it sounds, these are some of the questions that I ask myself on a regular basis. In my whirlwind college student life, I am naturally inclined to try to make sense of my identity, aspirations, and relationships with others with the same terminology from my writing workshops and literature classes, to draw connections, justify my actions, and answer that essential question: Why am I here?

“I had a WLP moment the other day,” Cole, a close friend of mine, told me several weeks ago. He had been conversing in his room with his love interest, Lucia. The two had been acquaintances up until one night several weekends earlier. After returning from a friend’s party, Cole and I took turns reading T.S. Eliot’s  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”  aloud in my room (a poem that, for better or worse, resonates deeply with each of us). Sometime after we finished, Lucia knocked on the door to my suite, looking for Cole. You can guess how things progressed from there. 

After that, Cole and Lucia, whose names have been changed for this story, were involved in a casual but pleasant romantic relationship. However, one day, as Cole finished the task of stripping the sheets off his bed, Lucia broke up with him. Though Cole wasn’t heartbroken, he found it harshly funny how appropriate his corresponding actions had been as Lucia ended their relationship: a real-life example of literary symbolism. 

It’s easy to understand how our lives influence the art we produce and the way we look at other’s art (I’ve heard the mantra “write what you know” more times at Emerson than I can count) but the inverse of that — how art influences our lives — is something I hear talked about much less frequently. I suspect that stories like Cole’s are all too common among art students, particularly those with a focus in literature. Great art reflects human experience, directly or indirectly, and it’s no surprise that the same language that we use to talk about writing and works of literature in a classroom setting can be applied to our personal experience. Cole, like many other art students, bases his life in the context of art. 

But while I do think that literature is an important lens through which to view the human condition, and that we can learn valuable things about our own lives from studying books, I have learned from experience that blurring the lines between art and reality can be a dangerous way to live.  

Life is not a novel, and the fundamental difference between the two is control. No matter how realistic works of fiction may appear, writers are always pulling the strings, constantly manipulating the characters and events of  stories to match their aesthetic visions; even nonfiction writers control their stories through presentation, structural decisions, and the selective inclusion and exclusion of events. For all the agency we have in our own lives, we do not have total control over our realities in the same way that a writer has control over his or herwork. Reality is larger than any one person; it sprawls and extends its tendrils in strange and unprecedented directions. Looking at life through a literary perspective can cause one to hold life to an unrealistic standard of perfection. Suddenly, satisfaction becomes an unattainable goal. To quote Woody Allen  at the end of Annie Hall, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life?” 

Furthermore, it is especially important for writers to look at the world on its own terms. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, one of the cleverest, funniest, and most tragic novels ever written about the relationship between life and art, the neurotic narrator Charles Kinbote criticizes writers who spend too much time in their libraries, and advises, “Writers should see the world, pluck its figs and peaches, and not keep constantly meditating in a tower of yellow ivory.” Ultimately, while it is important to be cognizant of the crucial connections between art and reality, conflating the two can have negative consequences for both of them.