…as we found the Russian dark sad door of Heavenly Lane a great iron rasping on the sidewalk to the pull, the insides of smelling garbage cans sad-leaning together, fish heads, cats, and then the Lane itself, my first view of it (the long history and hugeness of it in my soul, as in 1951 cutting along with my sketchbook on a wild October evening when I was discovering my own writing soul at last I saw the subterranean Victor who’d come to Big Sur once on a motorcycle, was reputed to have gone to Alaska on same, with little subterranean chick Dorie Kiehl, there he was in striding Jesus coat heading north to Heavenly Lane to his pad and I followed him awhile, wondering about Heavenly Lane and all the long talks I’d been having for years with people like Mac Jones about the mystery, the silence of the subterraneans, “urban Thoreaus” Mac called them…
I quoted the crazy, sad, holy passage above from Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (in case I forget) to remind myself of the value of a writer’s sketchbook, or notebook, whichever, in the service of capturing life on the fly (you can read more from this excerpt here). Kerouac’s method was to sit against walls on New York’s Lower East Side, writing down everything he saw, using a method he called “spontaneous prose.” As he wrote The Subterraneans, he transferred these observations from New York to San Francisco and transformed stuff and made up other stuff and did all those things that fiction writers do to turn “real life” into fiction.
Another great example of turning observations into art is Lydia Davis’ wonderful story, “Cape Cod Diary,” where the narrator (it’s written in first person) describes her stay, day by day, in Cape Cod. How many of Davis’ observations are from “real life” and how many from her own imagination (or a blend of both) is only known to her. But it doesn’t matter. The beauty is the work itself, with its layers of meaning and rich detail. I’m currently reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, also written in first person. Its narrator is a character very close to Plath herself, but not Plath. Plath, a brilliant poet, had an eye for detail, character, and truth. In other words, as Lee Martin wrote in Naming the World, “the specific detail can simultaneously lead us to the vivid and the mysterious.” Just how is it that something known can lead to something hidden? The answer is that the writer must teach herself to trust in the specific,
to rely on the things of the world to resonate with emotional and psychological significance, and yet it seems that the precise detail can open a world or a life in a way that illuminates while also pointing toward darkness that the writer must try to navigate. (Martin)
As a beginning fiction writer I had a great deal of difficulty changing “real life” to fiction. I’m learning, however, how essential it is to observe closely, capture specific detail, and envision, because it is those habits that allow the fiction writer to see things more fully, in order to see more than one layer of truth at one time, as Flannery O’Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners. In other words, learning to transform the raw material captured in the sketchbook into truth is the scaffolding of fiction.