Degrees of Intimacy … in Words

Horse's EyeFiction-writing is a different beast – thrilling to engage after so much practice in resolving everything into concepts, expressing them, and inviting an audience to ponder and, ideally, agree.

I’ve been experimenting with live readings of fictional vignettes to a group of extremely varied listeners. The group was facilitated by long-time fiction fans who expected elaborate sensory details and easily accessible plot lines: the opposite of conceptual writing. Also gleefully opposite of conceptual writing (which calls for a single abstract voice) were some experiments in different points of view — not just opinions, but completely different experiences of a single scene (the Rashomon effect).

Listening to the listeners’ responses was almost as revelatory as the shifts in my writing process. I heard something I’d considered absolutely clear become a mystery to someone I’d thought would understand immediately. I heard something I’d imagined unique to me enthusiastically received as a listener’s own experience. I heard that my sense of adequate sensory detail had been driven by assumptions about symbolic meanings – meanings not completely shared by some of the listeners (but, I’m happy to say, warmly endorsed by others).

These surprises inspire consideration of “layers”: telling a single story in multiple layers, like a symphony with different instruments playing in base and treble, and being sure that each sequence can carry the listener forward on at least one level, if not all of them. I’ve always known this – conceptually (plot and theme and scene and character arc working together, etc.), and have always been able to feel it as a reader. But what is new for me is total immersion in the sensory realm, which previously seemed too irrelevant and/or intimate to warrant my early attention (decorations to be added later). Shifting my imagination into the purely sensory, as an initial source for words, which then launch their own metaphors, has felt like Dorothy opening the door in Oz, when everything is in color for the first time. After that experience, when I re-considered characters I’ve theorized for a long time, I felt new dimensions opening up in what and how they might see, hear, taste, touch, and smell (physically, even if the experience is generated in the subtle realms or involves synesthesia). These are effects – and thus causes – of intimacy: much livelier, literally, than thoughts, and much more communal than actions. (Even mystics, trying to describe a wordless realm beyond all differentiations, use an intimate sensory metaphor: “one taste.”)

As for how to include that sensory layer in the craft of portrayal, any of the characters’ senses might be expanded or limited by a novel’s point of view – the POV that declares whose interior feelings will be directly reported, and whose will be obvious only from their outer expressions and behavior (a look of bliss, a spasm of recoil). Preparing vignettes for this group made me notice I’d never clearly articulated for myself the “degree of intimacy” in the authorial voice, never fully grokked how far inside a character’s body-mind to go in a prose narrative – how intimate to get with them – as much as I’d noticed it in reading. I’d spent years exteriorizing everything for the visual medium of film, but now had to reverse my direction. The whole adventure – re-focusing into the sensory dimension – brought back three Aha experiences about the nature of sensation: a quote (temporarily unfindable source) saying that when I touch a wall, all I feel is my hand; a meditation on the centering, time-bending luxuries of dishwashing (feeling and smelling the soap and water, hearing the dishes and utensils clink, watching the bubbles, etc.); and David Abram’s lyrical The Spell of the Sensuous (which I’ve ordered from the library, hoping it’s as rich for me now as it was a long time ago).

The degree-of-intimacy problem, character by character, was analytically solved for me by a member of my pantheon: Ursula K. Le Guin. Her Steering the Craft book (now updated as A 21st Century Guide) clarifies this POV decision with great skill and ease. Going from the least-intimate to the most-intimate third person (my own sequence and paraphrasing, to accord with the ideas here, with a recommendation to readers to go to the ULK source for her official terms), the least intimate is the “camera eye” that looks at everything from the outside; a bit more intimate is the witness who’s a participant with thoughts and feelings, but not the main character, so can’t know the interiors of the core story; then comes the primary character whose actions, thoughts, and feelings are integral to the story; and finally, the famous omniscient narrator who reports from inside the heads of everybody. Le Guin highlights the intricacies of switching between voices (on purpose, carefully) and the ways cultural preferences for voice/POV continue to shift over time (Victorian omniscients, objective witnesses in minimalism, etc.).

Another bonus for me was to see a formal definition of modes of first person: involved participant and detached witness – and to realize I’ve shifted, over the course of this blog, from detached to involved (nonfiction). For example, one of my favorite early posts is “Accept What?”: I reported no personal experience with philosophical acceptance, just announced a concept. Over time, my instinct was to start including my own experience inside the topic I was addressing – like the unfolding moment in “Storied Synchronicity.”

These insights into voice/POV, about which I’ve written before, feel like tiny foothills leading to the Le Guin mountaintop. Her examples are illuminating – from a paragraph rephrased in different voices to excerpts from great literature – to show how the masters have handled it. It’s a workbook, with exercises. For more depth and philosophy, The Wave in the Mind is one of her most beloved (and frequently hilarious) contributions to the writer’s art (and soul). If you’d like to see and hear her, my favorite clip is of her receiving a National Book Foundation award, introduced by Neil Gaiman.

Why am I writing this? I like sharing good things I’ve found. I like starting conversations with topics of mutual interest. In considering the portion of this audience with zero interest in the craft of writing, I also offer the notion that there are new discoveries to be made, new inner channels to create, even after decades of expertise in something-or-other, whatever your other might be. After many years developing expert confidence in other forms, I’m surprised and happy about how enlivening it is to shift into unknown territory.

I hope something here piques your curiosity – maybe even the possibility that your own speaking voice might be more loaded toward the detached or the involved, without your being aware of it. (The active role of the observer, in physics and philosophy, is too big for this post, which is about being receptively sensitive.) With our literal voices then, we actor-writers of our lives close or open the outer gates to ourselves — a more universal topic than how to put words on a page.

In what person are you writing your life? How sensory are you? What happens if you switch the POV?

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