Getting Some Distance

There’s an old aphorism that in order to write about love, you can’t be in love. That is to say that you must have lost love, and be removed from it, before you have the perspective to write about it. You may have encountered this is your own writing, in a different way. Have you ever been told–or told someone–that you were too close to your own story?

What’s that about? Is there any merit to the idea that by putting a work aside, and forcing some emotional distance between you and it, that you can gain a sense of perspective?

Maybe we can answer that by looking at a different kind of love–love of a place.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short-stories set in Dublin, Ireland in the early twentieth century. Critics at the time hailed the work as capturing the essence of living in a modern Ireland. And since it’s publication in 1914, it has been held up as the epitome of capturing a time and a place in fiction. But while Joyce had most definitely lived in Dublin–he was born there and lived in and around Dublin for 22 years–he wrote Dubliners while living in Zurich and Trieste. In fact, in letters he wrote that he used the stories to remind himself about why he missed Dublin, as well as reminding him of why he left.

The reason that putting some space in between you and you own fiction can, sometimes, be helpful, is that the absence of something from your life–and from your daily consciousness–has a tendency to distill your memories of that thing–that place, that person, that story–down to most memorable aspects.

I have been divorced for nine years now. When I look back on the years I knew my wife the things that stand out to me are the very best and worst of the relationship. I remember, with great fondness our trip to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games–it was probably the best vacation of my life. And, equally, I remember coming to terms with infertility, and the growing stretches of time we spent apart, until ultimately we were no longer a couple. But I have to work to remember the little joys and trials of daily life with her. I’m sure we had favorite restaurants we frequented, or television shows we watched together, but I can’t recall any of these.

Time has distilled the entire relationship down to the truly memorable things–the good and the bad. The trivial things–that matter immensely to day to day life–get smoothed out and pushed to the background.

Likewise, after some time away from a story, the things that stick in your head, are those characters, those scenes, those lines of prose, that captured your attention and boiled in your subconscious. Those are things that made you have to write the story. And the little things, the scenes you wrote just to get the reader to the next good part, the flat character who serves merely as a distraction, and the clunky prose that you always meant to make better but never did, those things get forgotten. And once you reread your work, they stand out like headlights in the desert. As you reacquaint yourself with the story and characters, what you love and hate about it will rise to the surface.

You can write your story, and you can write it with love…but maybe the two of you just need a little distance.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I can relate to Joyce’s writing about a place after he left it. The current story I’m working on takes place primarily in the place I grew up in the midwestern US. I left there in 2004, but felt my story should take place there, now that I have some distance. If I’d tried to write it when I lived there, or taking place where I live now, I think I’d probably muddy my story down too much with the details of the setting rather than the story itself. Good points, all.

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  2. I do believe distance works best. Yearning for a time, place or person does appear to come together easier for me in the writing. I flesh out the details to rebuild them anew with a fresh outlook.

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  3. I like to let my story brew for a bit and then I can read it with a perspective closer to what readers might experience. The clunkiness and repetition show up, making it easy to clip. As for distance from a subject in order to be able to write more objectively – maybe it’s the urgency of being close to a subject that fosters honesty and intimacy. A poem as bloody as a fresh wound will capture my attention. Orderly entries I leave for accountants. I am always in love – and always in hate. They bookend my writing.

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