Late Drafts

A few months back, I was run­ning a sem­in­ar on lan­guage devel­op­ment. The sem­in­ar exam­ines phon­o­logy, syn­tax, semantics — all the object­ive bric-a-brac that we cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gists like to talk about when we talk about lan­guage. Midway through the intro­duct­ory ses­sion, I stopped to ask if there were ques­tions. A mature stu­dent asked, ‘I don’t see how all these things relate to lan­guage itself. You know, as a cre­at­ive, breath­ing thing that people use to express what they are about.’

Silence on my part. I looked over their heads, out the win­dow.

I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘that’s prob­ably a really stu­pid ques­tion.’

Some of the stu­dents laughed.

No, it’s the most import­ant ques­tion you could ask in psy­cho­logy. There isn’t any answer that I can think of.’ I paused again. ‘No, psy­cho­logy isn’t good enough to answer that yet. It prob­ably nev­er will be.’

What you have, in psy­cho­logy and in fic­tion, is an object­ive lin­guist­ic frame­work that attempts to describe the mind. It omits the sub­ject­ive. That is, it has noth­ing to say on what it is like to be in pos­ses­sion of a mind. There are those who believe that an object­ive frame­work is suf­fi­cient for a sci­ence of the mind like psy­cho­logy, but I’m not one of them. And I think this prob­lem applies to fic­tion. How do we, using an object­ive, lin­guist­ic frame­work, provide a sense of what it is like to be our char­ac­ters?

Imagine this. Imagine that.

How do you brush your teeth in a Swiss gar­ret in 1907? How much does a piece of cheese cost in a Zurich mar­ket? How anti-semit­ic are cer­tain groups?

But what is it like to be a char­ac­ter? The nov­el is an object­ive record, and the read­er con­jures some­thing sub­ject­ive from this. What will they con­jure?

These are my thoughts as I fin­ish The Amber Rooms, join the dots, spend some time being someone else until it’s all over.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

7 thoughts on “Late Drafts”

  1. You can ima­gine those scen­ari­os, but you can’t dir­ectly implant those ima­gin­ings into the minds of your read­ers. The best that you can hope is that your words are effect­ive enough to trig­ger their ima­gin­a­tions, so that some­thing roughly sim­il­ar appears there. As a fic­tion writer, words aren’t your product, they’re your tools.

  2. Very inter­est­ing piece, Ian. A friend remarked, recently, “…the read­er gets car­ried away with their own men­tal pic­tures. You want them to do this as long as they’re see­ing more or less what you want them to see… but it can take them some­where very dif­fer­ent than you ima­gined! She was refer­ring to this snip­pet of my writ­ing. I had to dis­agree. I want to give the read­er as much free­dom as pos­sible, to explore the capa­cit­ies of my char­ac­ters.

  3. That’s a good point, Martin. There’s cer­tainly some­thing to be said for let­ting the read­er cre­ate their own inter­pret­a­tions and not wor­ry­ing too much about what they come up with. And, per­haps, these dif­fer­ences are a pos­it­ive part of the pro­cess.

  4. I think it’s inev­it­able that that every read­er will pic­ture things slightly dif­fer­ently from the author, and also from each oth­er. That’s the main reas­on I don’t like to watch adapt­a­tions of things that I’ve read.

  5. Thanks for your com­ment, Lee. I wouldn’t argue that read­ers should pic­ture things in the same way, but I’m inter­ested in how these char­ac­ters are trans­por­ted. What’s lost?

  6. Things may be lost from the author’s ima­gin­ings, oth­er things will be added. It’s a game of Chinese whis­pers which has pre­oc­cu­pied lit­er­ary crit­ics for more than a cen­tury.

    Perhaps you could cre­ate a pro­ject sim­il­ar to a game of Chinese whis­pers, where a read­er could write their under­stand­ing of a pas­sage of one of your books and you could read that and write your under­stand­ing of it? Not per­fect, but I’m not sure who else you might invest­ig­ate it. Perhaps you can think of oth­er ways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *