In my last blog, I used an excerpt from Ursula Le Guin about writers accepting their readers as collaborators and including them as partners in the story, “to include or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.”
A few pages later in The Wave of the Mind, she adds: “Story is a collaborative art. The writer’s imagination works in league with the reader’s imagination, calls on the reader to collaborate, to fill in, to flesh out, to bring their own experience to the work. Fiction is not a camera, and not a mirror. It’s much more like a Chinese painting—a few lines, a few blobs, a whole lot of blank space. From which we make the travellers, in the mist, climbing the mountain towards the inn under the pines.”
Let’s talk Sherlock Holmes. Or not, because I could go on all day long about how I fell in love with 1890s England—the fog, the horse-drawn cabs, the heaviness and oppression of the moors (…a gigantic hound…), the cramped upstairs apartment filled with pipe smoke, even the emotions of Holmes and Watson as they waited in silence for the viper (…the speckled band…)—and so much more. I occasionally pull my dusty book of Complete Stories from my bookshelf and enjoy a few of Dr. Watson’s tales, finding that I still fill in a lot of the space between the words; the words are 2D, while the images that fill my brain are 3D.
A more recent experience is a novel from a few years ago: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. It’s the story about an ordinary, shy, reclusive man who receives a card from a woman he had known thirty years before. She told him that she was dying from cancer and wanted him to know how much she appreciated his kindness when they worked together at a brewery.
Harold remembers her and writes a short thank you note. When he leaves his house to walk to the post office box to mail it, however, he hesitates, and then keeps walking. There grows within him the need to express the value of her friendship with more than only a card. As the story unfolds, he writes her a note to say that he is coming to see her and that she should not die until he gets there. He continues to walk, not going back home, not returning to tell his wife where he is going (he calls her every night), completely unprepared, not expecting to do what he’s doing, not planning to do what he’s doing, not even understanding why he’s doing it, but devoutly accepts his goal of walking 500 miles: he lives in the south of England, the woman is in a nursing home in the north of England.
As I listen to him think as he walks (it’s a real walk, with real towns, real flowers, real calluses and blisters, real heat and real cold and real wet), it’s not long until I’m walking beside him. His memories of life mirror some of my own memories; what he notices, I notice; his fears, his worries, his embarrassments, his growing courage, his son, his wife, his work at the brewery as an accountant, all ring familiar; and I suddenly fall into pace with his footsteps, one after the other, as he’s plodding along the quaint backcountry English roads.
By mid-book, I have become Harold, at a distance, and I am as interested in what’s going to happen to him and the woman as I have been with any book. It’s a quiet story, a deep story, and reveals a pilgrimage that I didn’t know I wanted to go on.
That’s one aspect of what Ursula Le Guin was talking about. It isn’t just identity with a character; that’s not unusual and readers do it all the time. It’s the involvement that I was drawn into, and the weight that began to feel heavy on my own heart. Rachel Joyce drew me in and made me think that it was not Harold’s journey but my own, and what he was discovering was somehow related to me. When I found myself walking beside him, my imagination transfigured Harold’s adventure into something crafted to fit my own space, growing into a greater picture than what Joyce had written.
I was seduced and that’s a whole lot more fun than just entertainment.
Several years ago, a writer/friend invited me to join a monthly writing group in Albuquerque. This writing group has a long history, originating with Tony Hillerman when he was teaching at the University of New Mexico. He gathered a number of newspaper and magazine writers, publishers, and editors who had similar interests in the publishing business and began getting together to discuss their mutual problems, solutions and insights.
Some decades later, the group still has a definite bent towards not the craft of writing but with getting books out and sold. There are people who self-publish paperback and electronic books (with a major emphasis on science fiction), a few writers for magazines, a couple of publishers, an editor or two, a bookstore owner, two translators (including a lady who has been knighted by the King of Denmark), and writers like myself who use traditional publishers.
I am, as one might guess, the novice of the group.
I did once have an opportunity to talk to the group about an initial draft of a book I was working on. My draft didn’t yet have much plot but the story, as I expressed it, would be “interesting” to the reader.
That earned me some criticism, most of which was provided by my friend. His exact words were “interesting means boring” and the sentiment was echoed by others. I felt squished.
After the meeting, as was our custom, my friend and I went to eat at a close-by Japanese restaurant. Talking with my friend over lunch was the real reason that I joined the group; discussing books and writing one-on-one with him was a treasure. He continued his “advice” and I understood what he was saying. Internally, however, I wanted to make an argument that readers wanted “interesting” and that any book that didn’t have something that was intellectually engaging would be missing a large connection to the readership.
A couple of months ago, I found someone who explicitly supports my side of the argument. The following is from The Wave of the Mind, by Ursula K. Le Guin, one the finest writers the world has produced:
“Most best-sellers are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers. The blurbs on their covers often highlight the coercive, aggressive power of the text--compulsive page-turner, gut-wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping—what is this, electroshock torture?
From commercial writing of this type, and from journalism, come the how-to-write cliches, “Grab your readers with the first paragraph,” “Hit them with shocker scenes,” “Never give them time to breathe,” and so on.
Now, a good many writers, particularly those entangled in academic programs in fiction, get their intellect and ego so involved in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it that they forget that they’re saying it to anyone. If there’s any use in the grab-‘em-and-wrench-their-guts-out school of advice, it’s that it at least reminds the writer that there is a reader out there to be grabbed and gutted.
But just because you realize your work may be seen by somebody other than the professor of creative writing, you don’t have to go into attack mode and release the Rottweilers. There’s another option. You can consider the reader, not as a helpless victim or a passive consumer, but as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. A colluder, a co-illusionist.
Writers who choose to try to establish a mutual trust believe it is possible to attract the readers’ attention without verbal assault and battery. Rather than grab, frighten, coerce, or manipulate a consumer, collaborative writers try to interest a reader. To induce or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.
Not a rape; a dance.
Consider the story as a dance, the reader and writer as partners. The writer leads, yes, but leading isn’t pushing; it’s setting up a field of mutuality where two people can move in cooperation with grace. It takes two to tango.
Readers who have only been grabbed, bashed, gut-wrenched, and electroshocked may need a little practice in being interested. They may need to learn how to tango. Once they’ve tried it, they’ll never go back among the pit bulls.”
My “interesting” book did make it to the bookstores. I worked on the plot and the scenes and gave the “interesting” aspects more context of how they played in the novel. I did put in a couple of near-death experiences for the hero, but it all worked out fine. It is, indeed, an interesting story that invites the reader to imagine what they would do if they were the characters, and requires them to grapple with moral questions, and it makes their reading experience far more engrossing and memorable.
By 1876, the first centennial of the United States, no one in the world had ever been to the North Pole. For that matter, no one had ever been to the South Pole.
What was there? What happens to your compass when every direction points south? Every modern Arctic expeditionary attempt had found a sea of ice that was impenetrable. Was everything covered in ice or was there something beyond the ice that was more remarkable?
As early as the 1600s, it was generally accepted and heartedly endorsed by the renown scientists of the day that the top of the earth was crowned by an open sea. Several felt that not only was it an open sea, but that the temperature of the water was temperate. If an explorer could make it through the annulus of thick ice that surrounded the North Pole, they would find sailing to be much like in the Caribbean. Some even theorized that a new continent existed there, full of flora and fauna, and it was not such a wild idea that members of the human race would be found flourishing there.
On the outer edge of the theories, in 1820, an American from Ohio, John Cleves Symmes Jr. theorized that the earth consisted of concentric spheres, with large holes at the North and South Poles that connected to networks of inner cavities. It was even likely that the spheres were inhabited.
Perhaps scoffed at by the leaders in science and government, the public became enthralled with the idea that the poles of the earth consisted of veritable wonderlands waiting to be discovered. This made a new theory remarkably believable – that there existed a large hole at the North Pole through which all the water from the oceans poured, traveling through the center of the earth and emerging out a similar hole in the South Pole, where they became the tail ends of the same oceans flowing north.
When Jules Verne published his Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, a considerable number of people didn’t believe that it was fiction.
One of the largest and most famous voyages sent to find answers was the Franklin expedition of 1845. Captain John Franklin and his crew of 129 set sail from England in the Terror and the Erebus, two well-provisioned ships. Within weeks, they sailed into chunks of flowing ice, and were never heard of again.
That was typical of an Arctic voyage.
Other expeditions had launched, would be gone for a year or two, and then a group of scraggly survivors would be found on an ice flow, barely alive. Their stories described sailing into an ice field, their ships then being surrounded by floating chunks of ice which froze and held them immovable. Ultimately, the ice crushed the ship by pressing against its sides and it sank to an icy grave. The stories always ended with terrible ordeals of starvation, sickness, exposure, and continual suffering.
After the Civil War, however, a growing wave of American national pride demanded that the idea of Manifest Destiny be expanded to include an international facet and by 1876, the call for scientific discovery (and planting the American flag on newly discovered territories) gave birth to the U. S. Arctic Expedition and the USS Jeannette.
It took until July 8th, 1879 to get her launched, but the USS Jeannette was all that an arctic explorer would want. Already a proven ice-breaker in the seas to the far north of England, the Jeannette was 146 feet long, three-masted, with a steam engine that powered a single screw propeller. She carried eight boats, including 3 whaleboats, and required only a crew of thirty.
Bought and fitted, she made the trip from England around the tip of South America, spent several months being rebuilt by an elite team of boat builders in San Francisco, was reinforced for every possible challenge of ice-laden seas, and laid in enough provisions for three years of sailing in the upper reaches of the world. Her crew would consist of experienced Arctic sailors, nautical craftsmen, forty sled dogs, two Inuit hunters, two Chinese cooks, several scientists, a doctor, a reporter from the New York-based Herald newspaper, competent junior commanders, and George Washington De Long, a determined, seasoned, and now nationally famous ship captain who would prove to be the best man on the planet for the job.
The New York Commercial Advertiser declared, “Should success crown the efforts of the gallant commander, it will be one of the most brilliant geographical adventures ever won by man. The solution of the Northern Mystery would be the event of the century.”
Having stopped along the way to replenish his store of coal, De Long and his ship sailed from the shores of Alaska for the North Pole and was seen on September 7th, 1879, by a whaling fleet in the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait, struggling through an ice flow. It was the last reported sighting anyone ever had of the USS Jeannette.
It wouldn’t be until May 5, 1882, that a formal dispatch informed the world that De Long had been found, frozen, in the delta of the Lena River on the northern coast of Siberia. He had been dead since October. A few others of the crew survived and their stories of what happened included spending a full year locked-in by ice before the ship was crushed, and taking an extreme escape route of a thousand miles across hundreds of miles of ice while pulling a few thousand pounds of gear and lifeboats, and the rest across the treacherous Arctic Ocean, striving to get to the Siberian coast. Even when there, it was months before any of them would find another human being.
There was no open sea to the North Pole.
And, once again, I’m going to stop complaining about wearing a mask.
In the Kingdom of Ice, the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, is a wonderful book to read. Exhaustively researched and cleanly written by Hampton Sides, an editor of Outside magazine who lives an hour away from me, it is only one of several great books that he has written.
In other news, the Roswell Daily Record newspaper agreed to review my historical fiction novel, Teddy’s War. The review should be coming out next Sunday. I’ll post the URL so you can read it.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.