Sunday, September 7, 2008

Between a rock and a

There is a time and place for description. Maybe on birthday cakes or thank-you notes. But not so much in books or short stories. Not anymore.

One reason being most of the effective descriptions have already been described by essayists, letter writers, diarists, novelists, penny-a-word pulp writers. (I at one time had a stuttering detective.) Another reason being the more layered meanings and signals sent forth by the world about us and its inhabitants.


We're supposed to be story tellers, not fabulists or preachers or, heaven forfend, propagandists. We're supposed to evoke--not describe. We're not supposed to tell the reader how to feel, we're in it to allow them to get their own sense of how a character might feel. So yeah, it's okay to describe something the reader might not otherwise have experienced, or something seemingly ordinary--say a lawyer's office or hospital or school room--that is different from the conventional expectation.

Habitual readers, readers beyond the Look! Look! Look! See Dick! See Jane! See Fido! See Dick and Jane and Fido run and jump! level are drawn to writing that tells direct truths and such truths are demonstrated by irony, the presentation of information that means the opposite of what the speaker intends, or by the subtext of a character feeling one thing and saying another. 

 Evocation is producing a desired emotion by talking away from it or, as Tim O'Bried did in The Things They Carried, by using objective correlative in which we can see how sometimes a cigar might be merely a cigar but other times is represents something quite else.

Sometimes it is no accident that we relate more closely to acquaintances on the Internet than to friends because of the disparity in role playing and the willingness to put material from our lives and feelings into our work. Moments of evocation stand out because they are widows into the feelings of real persons and real characters.

We all read with some expectations, among them the expectation of a particular genre promise, but often unspoken is the expectation that characters will reveal themselves with all their flaws and strengths. We read for this sense of intimacy that may be missing in our own lives or not present in enough substance to satisfy us. 

 We are hunters and gathers, foragers, looking for things beyond food and shelter, looking for traces and firm evidence that there are others who share our feelings and with whom we can talk. It may not be politically correct or conventional or even practical to make imaginary playmates out of other writers' characters, but nevertheless, we do so.

There is something at first disturbing about evoking feelings from one's characters but then the process becomes a jones, we are intrigued by it, then we crave it. Most of our favorite characters have experienced degrees of embarrassment, humiliation, pride, pleasure, satisfaction, grief. Of these, grief of loss and humiliation are difficult to portray head on, but by approaching it sideways, through subtext, through evocation, we are tapping the source that gives us the emotional language we seek. Try saying aloud when there's no one around, lest you feel embarrassed. Try saying, I speak empathy. I write empathy. Sometimes you can as your characters can also do, accomplish more by saying nothing and merely being there for someone, an open presence.


Anonymous said...

Well timed as always--with lots of empathy too.

Wild Iris said...

Ah the debate on descriptiveness. Immediately I call to mind the advice, "Show. Don't Tell." And then immediately following, comes to mind, "Actions speak louder than words." And then directly after that, I recall a certain wise someone comparing emotions to the ballast of a hot air baloon, and if emotions are the ballast, then empathy must be the basket that carries the reader skyward.