Tuesday, June 05, 2007

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I write and I understand.”

Supposed to be a Chinese proverb, but who knows? Whenever someone wants to slip in something really said by that ultimate sayer of saying, a certain 'Anon', and it sounds like it could be Chinese, attributing it to a culture that is possibly the most ancient and enduring civilization on planet Earth—despite the changes and glitches and ups and downs—tends to lend it authority, and so the attribution is made. Who is going to prove otherwise?

Anyway, let's suppose it is Chinese. In any case, it carries a lot of cognitive clout and veritas, especially the first two parts, which relate to the persistence of impressions entering our heads through the ears and the eyes, respectively. But it is the third that matters here, for this is, after all, a 'writer's blog'.

'Understanding' is, of course, one of these terms that is either taken for granted and used without much thought, or else it engenders endless discussions about what is 'is'—all of which are bogus, as any even half-follower of General Semantics will tell you. 'Understanding' here is more thought of as an ability to see the context within which any given fact, word, observation exists. Every fact is connected to others, and it is those connections that must perceived in order to 'understand' the fact. If you're talking about a word, it has to do with seeing in embedded in the surrounding meaning(s), if and when it is used. If you're talking about an observation about a person, it has to do with placing that within the background, current environment (external and internal) of that individual. That kind of thing.

[Aside: if you now think that what I just said puts me into the touchy-feely, sensitive, understand and forgive, New Age serene, yadayadayada, category, think again. Just because one 'understands' something in the sense just indicated, doesn't mean one needs to necessarily feel inclined to accept or tolerate it. Often the opposite can be the case. End of Aside.]

Does writing—'fiction' in this instance, for 'non-fiction' raises a whole other set of questions—enhance 'understanding' in the sense used above? Understanding of the things one writes about, or maybe transferring to life, the universe and everything in general? It would be nice to think so, though I am afraid that the habits of compartmentalization in most people are so strong that there's no guarantee of even suggestion of any reliable correlation. Nor should it be expected, given that fiction is, after all, invention of stuff.

Despite all this, the writer of stories, and especially complicated ones, by and large is more likely to become prone to a habit of thinking just a little further beyond his nose than the 'normal' person. For a 'habit' it is. You can't write any even moderately complicated tale and have it be credible without taking into account stuff that you'd ignore in ordinary life. Thing is, in normal life there usually isn't the time and opportunity to consider everything and sundry when making a decision about this or that. And then the world—reality, contingency, laws of actions-and-consequences—usually do their stuff, and out comes that thing known commonly as 'life'. In stories however that doesn't happen. Because there is no life there, no contingency, no consequences, no nothing, except for what you make up. Meaning you do not only have to be the creator of the actions of your characters when confronted with whatever they're confronted with, but also the creator of everything else. Whatever happens in the background, including the stuff you don't describe, but of which you only tell about the consequences and visible (story) effects: all of that needs to be simulated in your head, because 'reality' isn't doing it for you, like in real life.

I think that's why those tales that seem to have an implicit and hinted-at complex and intricate background, practically and story-historically speaking, seem to have extra 'weight', if you will. Stuff is there just like it is in life. One gets the feeling that there are circumstances over and above the control of the actors in the drama; things pushing them along this way or that, often prompted, of course, by actions taken in the visible foreground, that result in a gazillion cause-and-effect bits and pieces happening out of sight.

Stories using that kind of device tend to combine both the predictable and 'linear'—meaning A leads to B and to C, and that'll be kind of like what you'd expect, which gives the stories the...well, the 'expected' component—with another that might be called the 'lurking background'. This actually beneficial because a good story takes sharp turns, or else it becomes too predictable. As an aside, the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was an excellent combination of the predictable and the sharp twists and turns, happening because events was taking place that were either completely random, as things in life also tend to be, or else they were background things coming to have foreground effects. It got more so in parts 2 and 3.

If I look back at the Tethys series, I realize that there's a lot of that, too, and that it becomes more so as the series goes on. Same goes for Seladiënna. These things weren't really intended. I wasn't sitting there, saying to myself "I'd better do something random or connect this background thread now". Except maybe in the case of the walk-on of Ailin (and, yes, there's a domain name and a business associated with the name these days; this one isn't too bad as associations go, I suppose) in Keaen, I admit. That was the most random thing ever; and the one with possibly the most extensive consequences. But in general it wasn't like that, but more like knowing, somewhere in the background of one's mind that now is the time for this or that churning away behind the scenes to come to have a visible and story-twisting or plot-advancing effect, or something along those lines.

In this instance I am speaking for myself, and I really have no idea how other story-tellers handle all these things. It depends, I guess, on the person and how s/he functions. It does not really matter how, but only that the background and the ramifications exist and appear to exist and have an effect. If they don't, the story's scope becomes constricted. That works fine for some kinds of stories—children's, trashy romances, straightforward detective, schlock horror, stuff like that—but it makes others who have some implicit wider-scope aim appear just flat and uninteresting.

Purely personally speaking I also find that—though I may always have been of such disposition and maybe the way I write is a consequence of this, rather than the other way around—the habit of thinking of life and the universe doing stuff behind the scenes, as well as the potential background ramifications of something that happened in the foreground, tends to become...well, a 'habit'. Nothing is simple and isolated. There's always some existential chain of dominoes that goes on and on; and ultimately, somewhere, somehow you're in that chain again, because that's the way the universe works.

Overall it is, I think, a good habit; because it tends to make you aware, and I think by and large 'being aware' is good. However, it also tends to make life more difficult, because whatever you do, you're always aware that either you're doing something and doing it and deliberately trying not to think of the consequences; or else you've done something impulsive and you are aware of the actual consequences, but wish you really were ignorant of them, because it's such a pain in the ass to know; or you do whatever you do, aware of at least some of the potential range of consequences, and then you have to make a decision to do this or that anyway, and that makes you entirely responsible for doing it...as well as the consequences, intended or not.

Other than that life as a writer of fiction is actually quite cool. More on that soon-ish.

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