If you’re struggling to write the big dramatic moments – the battles and deaths and marriages – maybe you need to approach them from a distance and focus instead on the quieter moments. To borrow a phrase from Richard Ford, maybe you need to ‘concentrate on the quieter human eddy.’
Video transcript follows below:
Raymond Chandler quipped, ‘When in doubt have a man walk through a door with a gun in his hand.’ But his advice should come with a warning: prose fiction isn’t the best medium through which to deal directly with extreme experiences.
Films are great for shoot outs and explosions and battles and car chases. We’re often surprised when the film adaptation of a book we love introduces a whole lot of fighting and action that we don’t remember in the original. An extreme example was the film adaptation of Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Ford’s tale of a middle-aged real estate agent visiting the basketball hall of fame with his troubled son, became, on the big screen, a sci-fi epic in which Will Smith has to save the world from an alien invasion.
Cinema primarily depicts events from an imagined objective standpoint. When we watch Will Smith flying his plane towards the alien mothership, our viewing of the incident isn’t linked to any subjective position – we’re not viewing the scene through a character’s experience. In fiction, many of the best battle scenes also rely on some form of objectivity – in Tolstoy’s superb account of the Battle of Borodino he often relies on the perspectives of characters who are watching the scene from above, and who at the time are not directly involved in the fighting. But we still see things through the perspective of different characters; indeed, one of the reasons why literature remains important in our videological era is because it’s better than cinema at exploring inner experience. Or at least it’s better at exploring certain types of inner experiences.
Because the other big difference between cinema and prose is that whereas cinema uses non-verbal sound and pictures to convey experience, when writing ‘it’s only words, and words are all we have.’ And here’s the problem with writing extreme experiences – these are moments at which linguistic consciousness fails us. These are moments at which our flight or fight responses kick in, and our brains prioritise basic survival functions. Words are one of the first things to go, which is why we scream rather than shout ‘how frightening!’
Since we’ve only words, it’s very hard to write about a wordless state, and we often resort to clichés and myths. For instance, despite the insistence of thousands of writers, when you’re knocked unconscious, everything doesn’t go black. Everything doesn’t really go anything, because if it did you wouldn’t be unconscious.
It’s not that fiction shouldn’t deal with extreme moments, but usually, the best way to approach them is from a distance – to write about them from the safety of what Richard Ford calls ‘the quieter human eddy’. For instance, the bits we remember from Vietnam War films are often battle scenes – the napalm attack in Apocalypse Now, the carnage at the end of Platoon, or the fight for Hamburger Hill – but while Tim O’Brien’s short story collection The Things they Carried deals equally with the dehumanising effect of war, its focus falls on quieter moments; for instance, the title story climaxes with Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burning letters sent from his sweetheart.
To an extent the same thing applies with experiences that are emotionally intense. An example of this is Jhumpa Lahiri’s story ‘A Temporary Matter,’ in which a relationship falls apart six months after the couple suffered a stillbirth. There is not much one can say about the grief of two parents on the day their child is still-born. What words can convey such pain? In order to speak about their grief, it is necessary to approach it from a distance; to talk about how they are coping six months later; to concentrate on the quieter human eddy.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail image uses a photograph by Amanda Tipton. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/demandaj/)