Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thoughts on the Craft Expanded Redux -- cannegardner

Between subjective and objective there is no vital difference. Everything is illusive and more or less transparent. There are no solid facts to get hold of. Thus, in writing, even if my distortions and deformations be deliberate, they are not necessarily less near to the truth of things. The truth is in no way disturbed by the violent perturbations of the spirit.
Henry Miller

Subjective: Existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.

Objective: Of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

Today's quote by Miller intrigues me, as I think it is the perfect definition of art, whether that be a painting, or a story, or a poem, or a piece of music. The reality that each of us creates in our fiction is a perfect blend of the subjective and the objective, fantasy and reality. A story may have certain facts that ground it in reality, certain truths, but the characters’ interpretations of those truths may be distorted and deformed, thus rendering the objective illusive and transparent. That does not mean that they are any less the truth. Sometimes in a story, I think those distortions actually push us more towards the truth than the facts can. I often discuss this theory with other writers with respect to descriptive details.

The book cover displayed is from Roland Topor’s The Tenant, which I received in the mail the other day. The cover itself is an exercise in subjective vs. objective details. As far as the story, the writing is brilliant, and it beautifully manipulates the truth through the subjective and the objective. In this bit of narrative exposition, our protagonist is about to move away forever from the room that had been his home for many years:

“Even now he no longer really felt at home in this room. The uncertainty of his situation had intruded on his last days here. […] He had given up such concerns as cleaning and dusting, filing his papers, or even making his bed. The result had not been a wild state of disorder – his passions were too few to cause that – but an atmosphere of vacancy, of sudden cancelled departure.”

The Objective details ground us in the room: the bed, the papers, the dust. But the Subjective details, which are more prevalent, tell us what the room really looks like to our protagonist, and not only do we know what the room looks like, but we understand the character’s state of mind in that moment. We can see and feel the connection between the room and the man, and thus, we can know the man. So when deciding how much detail to add, one needs to focus on emotional intent and remember: The devil is in the details, and the truth lies in the subjective ones. If we hyper-focus on objective details, our characters become caricatures, one-dimensional beings against that scenic backdrop. The story of life, fiction or not, is about relating to the world around us. How a character relates to his/her world is the essence of a story. As a reader, I don’t necessarily want to know what the characters see; I want to know what they feel, or rather, how they feel about the world they inhabit. Why? Because I want to know if they feel like me. Simple as that. I want to relate in some way with the characters, and I can only do that through their subjective view of the world they live in.

Most of you know I have been devoted to strictly writing flash fiction of late, and let me say that writing in the short form like this has really tightened up the writing, I think. Flash fiction is an exercise in subjective detail, especially when you are writing in the abstract. In this case, every detail counts, metaphorically speaking. In my flash piece titled Persian Cat, published at Dustbin April 10, 2001, illustrates how I like to use subjective detail as metaphor:

You were on a New York subway train in the middle of the night...
It stank of sweat and urine, scattered newspapers stuck to the floor as a field of lilies in fuchsia flew past us off in the periphery. You could hear Pan skipping along the roof of the rail car, his hooves trot trot trotting as they tinned and plinked off the steel, idle dreams flitting away in the whirlwind of jolly notes from his flute. He played that song for a near-sighted girl, spilt milk dripping down her leg as she needfully explored the barren landscape that was her own flesh. She smiled at you -- I smiled at you -- and you, in the flickering fluorescent light, smiled back.

Every single detail I used was a metaphor for the past and present state of the two characters' romantic relationship with each other: the filthy vile state of the train; the beautiful lilies flying past them in the distance; the nearsighted girl; Pan and his melody of hope; even the spilt milk. I didn't need to come right out and tell the reader a single thing about their relationship; it's all in what the girl sees, and more importantly, how she sees it. How she sees herself in relation to her current predicament. Even in the long form, this approach can be used to the writer's advantage. It creates mood and an abstract level of intimacy that can affect a reader on a much more subliminal level than any objective detail ever could. I also found that the use of the Second Person Narrative POV just further intensified the intimacy I wanted to create. Here, the reader is not just a simple voyeur. Course, this is all just one person's artistic opinion, and for this story, it worked.

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