I’ve been very fortunate to spend the last two weeks at a residency with Paul Harding as our master artist. We live in cottages adjacent to a nature preserve—all kinds of birds, small reptiles and amphibians greet you in the morning on your way to the mess hall or the writing studio. Once, we saw a tortoise scurry beside a row of palmettos. It seemed in a hurry to get somewhere—it was traveling as fast as a hare, some of us thought. Later, we found out it had also laid a few eggs. So much for a race: its heart was set on something more important.
In Paul’s class, we talk a lot about writing the Truth in fiction. As he likes to put it, just write one true sentence after another. Soon enough you’ll have a novel. We also talk a lot about making prose experiential, so that the language almost embodies a physical component. The goal is to touch upon something ineffable, the mystery of living, but grounded in the concrete.
Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with how to write about place. So while rereading Tinkers, which is set in rural Maine, I’ve paid particular attention to how Paul deals with describing scenery. There is a temptation, he said (and I’m loosely paraphrasing), to just write beautiful sentences of the pastoral, of nature, woods, etc. associated with the landscape. But these are superficial and don’t always bring us closer to the truth of such experiences. There has to be a consciousness through which the experience is refracted.
E.M. Forster, in his book Aspects of the Novel, talks about the life in time and the life by values. My first encounter with this particular text, I glossed over it. But since then it has made more sense: we experience an event not merely chronologically, as something happening followed by another. We experience things in different intensities and with different associations. Often, it is the life by values that is more interesting.
One way this duality can be seen is in the interplay of describing a place objectively and subjectively. In truth, there is probably no real “objectivity” in descriptions, because the minute we choose one word for another, we’ve already exercised a kind of bias. But relatively speaking, we can mimic the human experience by offering a version of alternating objectivity and subjectivity.
Here is a passage from Tinkers:
What looked like the end of the road was, in fact, merely a shift to the left or the right or a dip or gradual rise. And the way the clouds moved, mostly invisible, above the canopy of trees, now revealing the full light of the sun, now obscuring it, now diffusing it, reflecting it, and the way it sparkled and trickled and gushed and flooded and spun, and the way the wind dispersed it even more among the flickering leaves and twitching grass, all combined to make Howard feel as if he were walking through a kaleidoscope.
This is a deceptively simple description of scenery. But looking closely, we can observe the subtle shifts between objectivity and subjectivity. The narration moves in and out of Howard’s mind:
What looked like the end of the road was… (subjective)
in fact, merely a shift to the left or the right or a dip or gradual rise… (objective)
And the way the clouds moved, mostly invisible, above the canopy of trees, now revealing the full light of the sun, now obscuring it, now diffusing it, reflecting it… (objective, concrete)
and the way it sparkled and trickled and gushed and flooded and spun… (subjective, figurative)
and the way the wind dispersed it even more among the flickering leaves and twitching grass… (mostly objective, somewhat figurative)
all combined to make Howard feel as if he were walking through a kaleidoscope. (subjective, figurative)
What we notice right away is that the objective descriptions tend to take on a more chronological quality, while the subjective ones tend to slow down the narrative (this is not a bad thing). What’s more, metaphors and qualifiers are the territory of the subjective. A particular mind has a particular way of seeing things. Qualifiers such as “seemed,” “looked,” “perhaps,” “feel as if,” etc. all signal us to subjectivity and the use of metaphors ahead. More importantly, qualifiers tell us that the narrator is trying to describe a complex experience that words would probably fall short of. Metaphors, aside from being memorable, also have a way of feigning objectivity, staying in the realm of the concrete and experiential, even though it has moved beyond this realm. For example, “walking” and “kaleidoscope” are both rooted in the material world, but used together, they suddenly transcend it.
Here are the next sentences of that passage. I won’t disassemble them line by line but you can see the same strategy being employed:
It was as if the sky and the ground were turning end over end in front of him, around in a circle, so that the earth, as it swung up over the sky, dropped leaves and spears of grass and wildflowers and tree branches into the blueness and, as it rolled back down toward its proper place, in turn, received a precipitation of clouds and light and wind and sun from the sky. Sky and earth were now where they belonged, now side by side, now inverted, and now righted again in one seamless, silent spinning.
A few last words need to be devoted, I think, to the issue of concreteness in description. We’ve all heard of the truisms on avoiding the abstract, on using as many of the five senses to write, since that is how we experience things. The truth of course is that everything we write will be abstract, because language itself is abstract. When we say “table,” the word itself is a concept; it is not the real “concrete” thing. So all this, again, is relative. But using the concrete to describe something abstract is a matter of trying to create a common experience with readers.
I was walking along the beach this afternoon, right where the waves advance and recede, leaving a smooth, shiny surface like pavement. Once in a while, when the water pulls back, I’ll see tens of tiny shells in every color dappled on the sand. And they crawl! I get squeamish, afraid I’ll step on them and get bitten. I try to avoid them but I always end up above their closing mouths. The sand on my bare feet feels the same, however, flat on my skin, as if the creatures were never there to start with. Seconds after they appear, all the shells burrow back underground and become invisible until the next wave arrives.
I wanted to render that experience more specifically. I wanted to find what those shells were called. I didn’t know who to ask or where to go, so I just typed “COLORFUL BIVALVES DISAPPEAR BEACH” on Google. Soon enough, I found a couple of websites refer to them as “coquinas” or “bean shells,” scientific name donax variabilis. I went back to rewriting the passage above. But then somehow, I felt it didn’t matter. Not knowing what the shells were called and just describing them using the limited capacity of my language made it more concrete. It made the experience more shareable and, to an extent, more true to my original sense of wonder. Even if someone knew the term coquinas or bean shells, they might have a completely different experience and associations with the word. So that extra layer of abstraction produces a flattening, rather than a rounding, effect. It also has a regressive, feedback-loopy effect. The etymology of coquinas? From Old Spanish and Latin, meaning “shellfish-like.”
Nathan Go will be teaching an online course Fiction of Place from June 3 to July 1. A reading and generative workshop, the class will each week analyze craft issues of place, encourage new work, and provide instructor feedback.
Lead photo: cottage at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, courtesy of the author.