I’ve been talking about how we see through frames. A “frame” is a processor between our eyes and our brains that takes the true image of what we see (physically, emotionally, spiritually, inwardly, outwardly) and puts it into a “reference frame” that explains, enhances, or interprets what we’re looking at.
A frame orients our thinking a certain way.
Here’s an example of frames taken to an extreme: The Truman Show. This is a movie made a while back with Jim Carrey as a guy named Truman. Truman’s entire life, from birth on, has been filmed as a television program, but he doesn’t know it. It’s the ultimate reality TV. Truman lives a regular life while, in fact, millions of people are watching him. He doesn’t know it, but his whole environment – home, streets, buildings, the ocean, the weather – is a stage, the individual pieces of life are props, and there are zillions of cameras everywhere. Truman is surrounded by people he believes are real, but, in fact, every single person around him is a character actor, including his parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even the casual people on the street. Each of them is under the stage direction of one man, the man who created The Truman Show.
Every person is fake, except for Truman, and every person watching the show knows that the show is fake. It is not life but entertainment.
Every person in the cast, every camera operator, every scriptwriter and every viewer at home looks through a frame where everything that is contrived, manipulated, and pretend becomes reality, for the purpose of seeing how Truman reacts. Truman doesn’t have that frame. His emotions, his actions, his behaviors, and his beliefs are based on everything he sees and experiences as being real.
There’s one scene where Truman is freaking out because he’s beginning to sense the falseness around him. His best friend consoles him, convincing Truman that he’s just having a moment of stress, that everything is real, and everything is just fine. While they’re talking, Truman hears what his friend says as if the friend is giving him heart-felt advice, when actually, the best friend (an actor) is repeating what the director is telling him to say through an earpiece. It tears your heart out to see Truman being manipulated, in every way possible, by a world of lies and falsehoods.
If Truman was taken out of that world and shown the TV program that everyone else is watching, then he would be looking through the same frame as the rest of the world.
What’s my point?
Our lives don’t involve the polar extremes of reality that Truman’s situation contains, but we all deal with internal mental frames that color the way we see what we see. A writer needs to know that. Without question, the writer has to be in the business of understanding the frames through which his readers view reality and, especially, has to be in the business of understanding the frames through which they see reality.
Why? Because writers deal with truth.
Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the writer is in the business of revealing the human condition to their readers and that takes knowing the true state of the human condition. Life in the raw. Life unaided. The bones of life without any flesh.
If it’s a character in a mystery story, the reader needs to identify with that character, be able to see themselves in that character, and have sympathy or hatred that is an honest revelation of how the reader sees that character.
The writer is in charge of making that happen.
If it’s a memoir, where the writer is recalling and describing a trauma suffered in childhood, the words they use must cause emotion in the reader, must inform them as to how a child feels to be in that trauma, and must pull out sympathy or shock or horror at the trauma.
If it’s history, the writer must deliberately construct an event with order, depth, and description to make the reader resonate with the common threads of the event. It must make them feel like the writer understood what it was like to there. History is a description of the human condition, best presented as life in the raw.
The writer is, foremost, an observer of life. As they watch, they need to see and understand the frames used by subjects, characters and readers; they need to see the progress from event to event, from emotion to emotion, and from behavior to behavior – in reality, in truth, not pretended, not imagined.
In the raw. That’s where the reality of any story lies.
Here’s a quote from one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”
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.