Collecting Experiences/Creating Stories: Writing Fiction in the Face of the Absurd

Walter Cummins

At age twenty, I took my first baby steps to becoming a short story writer, a couple of years before I imprinted on Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. His essays gave substance to inclinations festering within my confused young mind, revealing how fiction making could offer me the illusion of meaning.

Camus explained the underpinnings of what I could finally call my existential alienation. The world bewildered me—stuff that had been drilled into me as accepted beliefs and expectations, the paths I was expected to follow in life. Much of it made little sense. Camus denied the explanations of science, theology, and philosophy as mere gropings into all that we could never know. Even before he clarified my condition, I was floundering in a sea of mysteries with no shoreline on the horizon. I needed a raft to stay afloat, a buoy of my own construction, an assemblage concocted from the flotsam swirling around me. Story writing was my answer.

My keeping afloat analogy is inappropriate to Camus, who grew up in Oran on the Mediterranean and found great pleasure swimming under a bright sun, mastering the currents. I grew up on a bay that had a beach littered with the dark shells of dead horseshoe crabs and never got beyond doggy paddling in waters rife with stinging jellyfish. Camus was a powerful swimmer and a powerful writer. It occurred to me I might have to settle for doggy paddling among the words on a page, smarting with inadequacies.

So, with great trepidation, I enrolled in a creative writing class as a college junior. Though I had been a reporter for the campus newspaper since freshman year and was turning out short so-called humor pieces, creative writing was to my mind ascension to a much higher calling. Was I being presumptuous? Would I humiliate myself? (Actually, at one point I did, reading aloud what I had written as a horror story and having my classmates crack up, the laughter louder with every sentence.) But I persevered to what I knew was an overly lenient grade of B, yet couldn’t stop trying to be a storywriter.

After graduation, without a clear sense of options, I did the expected for males of my generation and took a corporate job as an advertising-sales trainee, rationalizing that I would be using words, perhaps even cleverly. Besides, I was married for the first time at twenty-one to an even younger wife and had an obligation to provide. But after a month on the job, I knew my career choice was wrong and that I was exemplifying what I later learned was Jean-Paul Sartre’s “mauvaise foi” (bad faith), performing a detached role and denying my authenticity, whatever that was. Camus calls it “a mechanical life.” He says, “I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone”

While my then-wife socialized with garden apartment neighbors—other trainees—most evenings, I huddled in our bedroom, scrawling bad fiction on sheets of paper fixed to a clipboard. I heeded Rilke: You must change your life, in my case deciding to apply to graduate writing programs. In those days only a handful existed in this country. But first I had to serve six months of army basic training and my wife finish her degree. Two years later, through what I still believe was a clerical aberration, my application was accepted, and we crammed scant belongings into our underpowered VW bug for the strained drive west. Released from an existence of complete mauvaise foi, I’ve been writing stories ever since.

But what does Camus have to do with this? Now that, through his writings, I had discovered existentialism and found a name for my condition, I devoted most of my non-writing workshop MFA credits to courses in philosophy and history of ideas. My grad school essays explored existentialist themes, my first titled “Men of Absurdity,” using the central term of The Myth of Sisyphus to consider Camus’s theories, his novels, Sartre’s Nausea, Par Lagerkvist, and Dostoevsky. I was, of course, revealing a personal quest, uncertain whether I would make it as a student or a writer, with no idea what would happen next if I did manage to finish the degree. Having rejected societal givens, I was seeking identity and authenticity, though all I saw ahead were unknowns and the threat of inadequacy. Still, I lived in the moment, one experience after the other. Some of those experiences germinated into stories.

In the absurdity essay I composed a month just before my twenty-fifth birthday, I wrote, reflecting on Camus, “The lucid man must avoid illusion, false hope or false despair; for his lucidity is his greatest gift. […] He realizes that the answers to his most urgent questions are beyond him. He must ignore what he cannot know and base his life on the evidence of his lucidity.”

For Camus, we are launched into a plethora of meaningless phenomena. It’s up to us to find our own moorings by trying to make some sense out of all that “stuff,” something to grab onto. We can’t rely on a set of givens to do that work for us, no predetermined set of beliefs or values to guide our lives. While we may borrow from them, we—essentially—have to create ourselves, through our choices shaping who we are and will become.

Camus’ concept to explain our frustrated hope for meaning is the absurd. The term is often interpreted as implying the world outside of us is meaningless. But Camus states that we don’t and can’t know enough about the world to come to such a conclusion. The absurd is a condition rather than a concrete. It’s our human situation of yearning to understand the world around us while faced with the impossibility of getting answers. The world may be teeming with meaning, but—if so—such meaning is not accessible to us.  “But what is absurd,” Camus writes, “is the confrontation of this irrational [world] and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”

We humans have no choice but to create our own individual realities because we can’t exist without some assumption of order, even though that assumption is only a functional heuristic, a temporary crutch to help us maneuver through the days. Our real challenge is to face head on all that we will never know and, like Meursault at the end of The Stranger, open ourselves “to the tender indifference of the world.”

Camus ends up reversing the opening question of The Myth of Sisyphus—whether to choose suicide rather than live without clear meaning—to conclude the exact opposite, that life without meaning is the greatest reason for living. Each experience can be enjoyed for itself and life can be accepted fully. The bad faith of oblivious plodding through daily life is a waste of our years. We should savor what each day brings, alert to the richness of the moment, even when that moment is a trial. Our days are all we have.

But how does savoring each moment relate to story writing? In Myth of Sisyphus Camus recommends that, if our life can never cohere into a shaped significance, our best option is to collect experiences, the more the better. For him the quantity of experiences is what matters. It’s perhaps a version of the bumper sticker: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” But Camus isn’t being ironic. Experiences are all we have. Don’t expect a conclusive meaning and just immerse in the doing as an end in itself. That’s the closest our lives come to having meaning: “A man’s rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate.”

Still, for Camus mere experiencing is not enough. It requires awareness—lucidity—to live life “to the maximum.” He writes in the first essay of The Myth of Sisyphus, “An Absurd Reasoning”: “For the mistake is thinking that the quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our life when it depends solely on us. Here we have to be over-simple. To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them.”

Here the storywriter enjoys an advantage over the two men—or women—in Camus’ example. In the same number of years, the writer creates fictional experiences beyond those accumulated one after another in daily living. And creating an experience demands an especially heightened consciousness.

Writing stories offers the opportunity to—through imagination—inhabit many lives and many worlds and conceive what it would be like to cope with a variety of personal crises. For me, travel has become the source of many short stories that go far beyond sights and cities, food stalls and restaurants, landscapes and train rides. Though I have all these stored in memory and in photographs, the stories allow me to dwell in alternatives that never actually happened, not necessarily to me but often to people seen interacting in a park, on a bus, at another table. What might their dilemmas be? What choices are they forced to make. My experience becomes the roots of imagined others. But in that imagining, I make those created experiences mine too. In fact, thinking back to a travel moment, I’m often unsure whether it happened in life or in my fiction. An experience multiplied, lived and relived.

Of course, the need for stories is not restricted to storywriters. People spend much of their lives engaged with the stories in their heads—dreams, daydreams, reconstructions of past events, some often recast in what-if or should-have possibilities. Now and then they may reveal these thoughts to others, but mainly they are private, the unending reels replaying in our consciousness.

While most people would not accept Camus’ notion of the absurd, they live as if they do, eager to deny it, spending much of their time entranced by secondhand stories—movies and TV shows and in some cases the books they read—that unlike “real” life make some sense of the world.  Those fictions cause them to live with the illusion that their own lives are a meaningful personal story, steps that culminate in dramatic significance. They expect their private cache of relived memories to add up to a grand finale, the truth behind their existence.

For writers and non-writers, stories may be our most effective weapon in coping with Camus’ absurd. We live in a reality that won’t provide answers to our most fundamental questions while we have no option but to engage with the world. Stories, through fabrications, allow us the illusion of making sense of our lives.

Storywriters differ in deliberately shaping the narratives in their heads for public consumption, often going beyond the personal to imagine people and places and dramatic situations far from anything they have known or experienced. And they are compelled to give these narratives structure, resonance, and purpose—resolution and consequence. In this quest for craft, the revisions and the re-makings, the writing becomes an experience of its own—the stages of the story itself and the story of creating the story. But the result is a construction, not an actuality.

This duality can even take place at the time of an initial experience, unlike Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’ve asked for verification to make sure it’s not just me. One friend in the midst of the excruciating aftermath of serious back surgery found herself—despite the pain—seeking words and strategies for the time she would be compelled to write about it. I’ve been alert to details while being wheeled into an operating room, knowing that someday they might help add verisimilitude to a scene. In short, as we experience, we are already engaged in re-experiencing in a quest for raw material.

While the act of writing stories can be frustrating, failure a real and frequent possibility, even the unsuccessful drafts offer an opportunity to immerse in other lives, other realities. I’ve turned out dozens of short stories, engaging in many worlds and many people and many dramatic uncertainties. Even stories from decades ago are vivid in my memory, a multiplicity of intense vicarious experiences that are my own. I suppose my bumper sticker could read, “Whoever writes the most stories wins.”

Walter Cummins’ memoirs, essays, and reviews have appeared in a number of magazines, including New Letters, Arts & Letters, Under the Sun, and Zeteo.  He has published seven short story collections, with more than 100 stories in literary magazines, in book collections, and online.  With Thomas E. Kennedy, he is co-publisher of Serving House Books, an imprint for novels, memoirs, and story, poetry, and essay collections. He teaches in the graduate creative writing programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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