There’s a 1951 short story by Norman Mailer called “the Notebook”. A young writer – yes, an undisguised Mailer himself – is out with his “young lady”. She is trying to make him aware of the moment, of what she’s saying to him, of what’s happening to them (ie that they are splitting up). But he just wants to record everything that he thinks and that happens in his notebook for material. She gets more and more irritated, then angry, but lacks the words to say why; he, of course, can express her feelings exactly, and proves it by writing them down. Even when he forces himself not to write anything, to pay attention to her, he’s thinking of stories and lines, storing them away in his memory for surreptitiously jotting down when she isn’t looking:
“Oh, you love me; oh, you certainly do,” the young lady said in a voice so heavy with sarcasm that she was almost weeping. “Perhaps I’d like to think so, but I know better.” Her figure leaned toward his as they walked. “There’s one thing I will tell you,” she went on bitterly. “You hurt people more than the cruelest person in the world could. And why? I’ll tell you why. It’s because you never feel anything and you make believe that you do.” She could see he was not listening, and she asked in exasperation, “What are you thinking about now?”
“Nothing. I’m listening to you, and I wish you weren’t so upset.”
Actually the writer had become quite uneasy. He had just thought of an idea to put into his notebook, and it made him anxious to think that if he did not remove his notebook from his vest pocket and jot down the thought, he was likely to forget it. He tried repeating the idea to himself several times to fix it in his memory, but this procedure was never certain… if he removed the notebook from his pocket, and held it in the palm of his hand, he might be able to scribble in it while they walked. Perhaps she would not notice.
The story is throwaway, a piece of ephemera Mailer flung together in a couple of hours; yet he said it attracted more letters from his readers than any other short story he’s written for newspapers. It’s not hard to see why: Mailer is a writer’s writer, and “the Notebook” strikes at the very heart of what it is to be a writer. For this is what writers do: we don’t experience the world, we watch ourselves experiencing it. We watch history the way we watch a movie; it’s only tomato sauce, not real blood. We are supposed to be empathic, but in fact we are the opposite: more like mad scientists experimenting with our subjects than founts of wisdom. We’re not quite psychopaths, although like them we experience empathy vicariously, not directly. We study the human animal and imitate it and pass as it, so that even those closest to us may not realise we are not like them – and certainly our readers are fooled into thinking we have a greater understanding of human nature, not a lesser. (Of course we connive at this misunderstanding, smiling as they hand the awards out). We writers are not necessarily bad people, even less violent or criminals, but our morality is deduced or calculated, not natural. People like us often become politicians or CEOs of big companies, or soldiers, or mafiosii; becoming a writer is more gainful employment. We always look askance at humans, as if we were a separate species. And, in a sense, we are.
In short, writers are aliens.
Of course not all writers are aliens; but I’d bet the best ones are. If that description fits you, welcome to this site. Here we discuss all aspects of writers and writing, and how, to us, the world doesn’t exist until it is written down. Contributions – either BTL comments or articles – welcome.
“The Notebook” is available in Spanish and English at https://www.scribd.com/document/103048850/The-Notebook-Norman-Mailer. I’m afraid that, if you’re not a member, the English is greyed-out; but it’s still readable, just. You can buy it in Advertisements for Myself (1959) or the Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967).