And now, a question. I throw you an object—roundish, reddish, with a short stem, a firm white flesh, seeds in the center, and you say “fruit” if you’re being generic, or “apple” if you’re being specific. I toss you another piece of fruit, this one yellow, maybe with a few brown spots, with a pulpy off-white flesh beneath a thick skin, and you say “banana.” Here’s the question.
What did you say wrong?
This is a discussion about life, and how the writer must see the world, and how the world conspires to blind the writer. And the first thing you must realize in this discussion is that the fruit I’m talking about is not a metaphor for anything. When I say apples and bananas, I am talking about … apples and bananas. The second thing you must bear in mind is that this matters, no matter how trivial it may seem.
Back to apples. You go into the grocery store most anywhere in the United States, most any time of the year. You can find apples. Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, Granny Smith. Maybe Macintosh. They’ll be in the produce section, well-waxed, beautiful to behold, stacked neatly in those geometric patterns grocers love. You take them home, you eat them, your brain says you ate an apple. But you didn’t. You ate something with about as much taste as the wax fruit my grandmother used to keep on her table, and whatever that insipid thing was, it wasn’t an apple.
Unless you live in the North and have access to the roadside produce stands or to growers’ orchards, and you go out driving on one of those breathtaking autumn days when the sky has turned an impossible blue and the leaves on the sugar maples are crimson and maroon and lemon yellow, and unless you have purchased a small paper bag full of apples with names you have never heard before, you have never tasted an apple. You have tasted a lie, and been told that it was an apple.
There are hundreds of varieties of apples, and there are apples that grow on abandoned farms in out-of-the-way back roads that are almost too ugly to look at and that have no names at all. When you bite into these apples, they are so sweet and tart and juicy and crisp that they bite you back, and your eyes water and their sharp, tangy scent burrows a hole into your brain and fixes there forever the taste of the apple and the rough texture of its imperfect skin and the color of the sky on the day you tasted it and the sound of water from the spring just above the roadside stand and the scent of growing grass and mouldering leaves and cold air touched with both the heartbreaking memory of summer gone and the promise of the coming of winter, and soaked overall in the unbearable beauty of the moment that vanishes before you can blink, but that will be with you always.
Real apples don’t make it into the grocery stores. Only the apple-shaped frauds that are so durable that they can be waxed and preserved and fixed like bugs in formaldehyde and kept almost forever touch the lips of most people. Most people have never tasted an apple.
Well, then, on to bananas. Bananas. What can anyone say about bananas? They aren’t like apples. You can concede that the best apples don’t travel well, that probably by the time they’ve sat in storage forever the market apples don’t have much flavor … but a banana is a banana is a banana, right? You have Chiquita, you have Dole, and maybe one or two other kinds, and every banana you ever tasted has been pretty much like every other banana you ever tasted, and if there were ever a mediocre fruit, that fruit would be the banana. Bland, inoffensive, polite. Nice. A cornflakes-and-lunchboxes fruit.
And every banana you have ever tasted—if you get all your bananas from the grocery store—has been as much a lie as those pathetic excuses for apples you know so well. There are as many kinds of real bananas as there are real apples. Tiny bananas the size of your fingers that are so sweet and rich they make an ambrosial desert all by themselves, bananas long as your forearm that are bitter unless fried in strips and eaten hot and crunchy, bananas with reddish skins, bananas with firm flesh, bananas with bite. Coming soon to a grocery store near you?
Not likely. You can buy all these wonderful bananas in the open-air markets in Central America by bargaining with the old, dark-eyed woman who sits on the cobblestones next to the white-plastered, bullet-riddled ruins of the old Catholic church. They arrived in town that morning on the back of her burro, and next Saturday she will bring more. You will not see these bananas in Nebraska or Arkansas or New York because the good bananas, ripened by the sun and eaten immediately, have no way to get from that far-away place to your kitchen.
Unless the fruits you have come to think of as bananas are cut from the banana trees when they are hard and green and miles from ripe, they will rot in transit. And if they are cut from the tree while green, they will never have the flavor they would have had. And the exotic bananas look funny to the eyes of consumers, and wouldn’t sell in sufficient numbers anyway. So if you get your bananas from a grocery store, you will never taste a real banana.
Apples … bananas …
What else in your life has been lying to you? What other banal, insipid excuses have been masquerading as the real things, convincing you that you have lived and experienced the world when in fact you have been led around in blinders? If you are going where everyone else goes, and if you are doing what everyone else does, just about everything in your life has been a thin, weak broth, colored to look pretty and palatable, mass-produced to sell to a least-common-denominator clientele who are led into buying what isn’t very good because they have been ignorant all their lives that better is out there.
Unless you have been to Alaska in the middle of the salmon run, when the black flies are biting like hell and the mosquitoes make blankets on every inch of exposed skin, and unless you have cut an inch-thick steak from a king salmon pulled fresh from the river and gutted right there, and unless you have wrapped that salmon steak in tin-foil filled with butter and perhaps pepper, and buried it in coals to cook, you have never tasted real salmon.
Have you ever walked across the tundra, feeling it give beneath your feet as if you were walking across a mattress that stretched as far as the eye could see—a mattress with shot springs and a coating of blueberries the size of your thumb and salmonberries and stands of fuscia fireweed that grow eye-high? Have you ever ridden your bicycle along eastern Ohio’s hilly back roads on a June day when the maples and the oaks shade the road and make the world look like a green cathedral, and the heat suppresses the sounds of everything but the drone of insects and the crunch of your tires on the gravel—when you stop and pick wild blackberries from the side of the road and get thorns in your thumb? Have you ever pulled a live crayfish from under a slick, moss-coated rock in the chilly, clear stream where you are standing with your feet bare while your toes squoodge in the slick, sensuous mud—and the crayfish, cool and coarse-carapaced, waves claws and antennae at you and you admire the armor that covers his tail and the way his beady eyes watch you before you drop him in the water and he darts away backward?
What parts of your life are not homogenized, pasteurized, FDA-approved, plastic-wrapped, unscented, tasteless, pablum? What have you seen that has not been filtered through the lying eye of television, or the movies—what have you heard that has not been influenced by radio, what have you read that is untouched and unsullied by corporations, the press, advertisers? What do you participate in that has no sponsor, no advertising, no board or council to promote it? What in your life is real?
And what does this have to do with writing?
Just this. If you have never tasted a real apple, you will never write about an apple that is real. If you have never felt an icy November rain soak through your clothes and drizzle down your spine and leave your nose cold and dripping and your eyes half-blind and blinking like defective windshield wipers, your characters will only be able to show readers the world from the inside of a heated automobile, or through the plate-glass window of a suburban house. If you have never lived, how are you going to write characters that live?
Real is free—or at least damned cheap. You want real? Turn off the television, go outside, get away from people. Let your cheeks get chapped by the cold, burned by the sun. Take a chance on that ugly fruit at the produce stand. Buy cloudy apple cider from your next-door neighbor who presses his own from the trees he grows in his back yard. Walk or ride a bike. Smell the air around you—even if it stinks of sweat and exhaust from cars and trash from the dumpster at the corner, it’s better for your writing than the recycled air-conditioned air that you’ve been hiding in.
At least once, don’t take anything when you get a headache. Let yourself hurt, and accept the hurt, and pay attention to it. At least once, cry when you’re sad instead of pretending everything is fine.
At least once, give yourself something real to hold on to, because if all you know is sanitary plastic, all you will ever write is sanitary plastic.
Where have you found unexpected experience?
NOTE: If this article resonates with you, and you want to meet other writers who share your passion and who are working in a friendly, supportive environment, come hang out with us and make progress on your writing in my free writing community.
I got here by way of your latest newsletter. This is a post about LIFE, and a vibrant one at that. I so much loved reading it. Also the first description of an apple ever that brought tears to my eyes, I never thought that would be possible, so thank you. (Your apples matches my own childhood experiences exactly!). And all the other descriptions I had no personal experience of are written with the same level of deliciousness and precision, you’re truly a treat to read.
Thank you especially for keeping going with the personal, it is when I resonate most with what you say. (and there will always be trolls, don’t let them fence you in)
With love and appreciation
Thank you, Saskia. I’m glad you loved the local apples. There’s nothing else like them anywhere.
And thank you very much for appreciating the article and its detail. My years in Central America were scary, and tough… as was the year-and-a-half in Alaska, and a decent chunk of the rest of my life so far… but that which doesn’t kill you makes great fiction.
Thanks Holly! So glad I read your entire article. As a reader, I sometimes disregard the minute descriptive details or extraneous “fluff” that some authors add to increase word count, but being reminded that using personal experience to enhance the story is what makes a story rich in detail and believable.
Thank you very much, Marilyn. I’m delighted you found it worth reading.
Love this. I lived in Turkey and Japan and just walked the entire Appalachian Trail. You gotta trust your feelings. Society tries to make you into a machine. Holly is saying you gotta feel life, not just think about it.
Thanks for yet another great resource. I find nature and the outdoors to be energising and a great catalyst for creativity.
Life is not always filtered and we, and our characters, need to traverse the minefields of life and survive.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve had any unsanitized experiences. Through my eyes, my life is dull, plain, uneventful and not the basis of anything remotely interesting unless I season it with bits of Burroughs and Tolkien and other stuff I’ve read. Than I tell someone something funny that happened, or about something I saw and people look at me strangely. So, I’ve never done any of the things listed (does a bathtub full of crawdads and corn meal and water count?)and it makes it difficult to write interesting stuff not set in someone else’s universe. I’m so glad other people have remarkable lives.
I am, roughly, in the same predicament…back to the drawing board.
Though, no one said it would be easy and, no one was absolutely
Thanks Holly. Tapping into my personal experiences when writing (fiction or not) is a good idea.