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.
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.