Eliot writes in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921): “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” Both essay and sentence are lastingly influential and often quoted, but the subsequent sentences prove even more interesting:
“When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
I would stretch “poet” to “writer.” Along with linguistic gifts – that is, a taste for words -- the writer’s essential tool is a hearty appetite for experience and a synthesizing imagination. Nothing is lost, no matter how small, and all potentially is useful. Experience is to a writer as krill is to a whale.
At last I’m reading How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell. Don’t let the tacky subtitle (most likely a publisher’s ploy) deter you. We’ve needed a popular life of the essayist since Donald Frame published his more scholarly biography in 1965. I’ve only just started reading Bakewell’s book (a belated birthday present) but already have noted a number of passages, including one that reminded me of Eliot’s observation:
“Montaigne wanted to drift away, yet he also wanted to attach himself to reality and extract every grain of experience from it. Writing made it possible to do both. Even as he lost himself in his reveries, he secretly planted his hooks in everything that happened, so that he could draw it back at will. Learning how to die was learning to let go; learning to live was learning to hang on.”