10 January, 2009

Thoughts on Exile and the Importance of Detail

***Warning: This post contains no hot Smack-o-Matic action. It does not bash inane politicians, crazy religious people, or general stupidity. It contains no lolcats or other items of humor. If you are one of those people who is driven to suicidal boredom by watching the inner workings of a writer's mind, please exit this post immediately. By continuing to read this post, you agree to hold the blog and its author harmless from any and all damages that may result.***

I've been thinking about exile a lot lately.

Seattle is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I love it here (except when it's snowing on a day when I have to drive somewhere). And yet, I often feel like an exile. This is a sensation I indulge, because so many of my characters are also in exile.

There is a difference between me and them: when I'm actually making a vaguely above poverty level living at writing, I can go home. They can't. For some, home no longer exists: for others, home's still there, but they've been exiled from their original bodies, which means they can never experience home in quite the same way again.

That last bit hadn't struck me until tonight, as I was reading through various and sundry notes in a desperate attempt to bring some semblance of order to the chaos. I hadn't been thinking of my Ahc'ton origins story as an exile story, but that's exactly what it is.

(For those of you just joining us, Ahc'ton are folks who gave up immortality in order to be reborn among those who need them. Don't ask me exactly how it's done because I don't know yet.)

Think about it. How much more exiled can you get than being reborn in not just a different body, but a different body in an entirely different species than your own? Even if you were able to go back home, your senses would experience it completely differently. It would seem nothing like what you remembered. It would look, feel, smell, taste and hear completely alien. You don't even have your body to take with you into that exile. Fairly jarring, I'd expect.

I've been getting a good sense of displacement - of feeling things are never quite right, my senses expecting one thing and getting another, comparing sensation from one place to another - but that's going to have to increase exponentially for imagining life as an Ahc'ton. Perhaps their bodies feel as if they belong to the world they're on, while their minds struggle with the sensory input and memories of their former lives. I know one of my characters frequently feels that exile-of-mind. When he's not paying attention, he'll try to take a step with four legs when his current body's got only two.

Ahc'ton remember. It's the whole point of being Ahc'ton - you're supposed to take your full memory, your experience, with you and put it to use for people who need it, but also need you to be able to apply it from within. Ahc'ton have to be two things at once. They have to be integrated with the cultures they're born in to while at the same time maintaining an objective distance. They're serving the interests of the people they're born among, but over and above those interests is the duty they were born for. And their duty is ultimately to their original civilization, because without that one surviving strong and intact, the whole shebang goes boom. And when I say the whole shebang, I mean it: the entire universe, ladies and gentlemen.

So there's another piece to their exile, one that many exiles experience: never being one thing or the other. Being a stranger everywhere you go. Only for them, there's the added component of being a stranger within your own body. Human exiles, at least, never have to worry about such a thing. They get to take their bodies with them. If they lose everything else, at least their senses aren't completely different (with exceptions, o' course, for dramatic injuries, but still, you're human).

One of the things I catch myself doing constantly is comparing Seattle to Arizona: "In Arizona, the rug I just washed would already be dry." "I miss dry dirt." "65 degrees up here feels just about right; in Phoenix, I'd be freezing fucking cold." "There's a lot more flowers to smell up here, but it all kind of gets lost in the cacophany; in Phoenix, you really notice when the orange trees bloom." And, when I get lost in Seattle's labyrinthine streets: "The Valley sucks leper donkey dick, but at least it's laid out on a damned grid."

Now I'll have to take that a step further, because we're comparing not just places, but bodies. At least I realized I already have a jumping-off point: any of you who are getting older will know what I mean when I say that I'm constantly comparing my body now vs. my body when I was young, very nearly flexible, and above all not creaking in ye olde joints. It's not quite the caliber of "Back when I was a quadruped," but it'll do for a start. The only problem with this portion of our program is that it'll make me more aware of how much my body's beginning to age. If you hear me complaining more about My Body These Days, you'll know the reason why.

Some of you may be thinking, "Jeez, Dana, OCD much?" Most people believe writing is a matter of having a few ideas, some characters, a plot, and the ability to write in complete sentences. Shake, bake and serve. Some writers even believe that. They don't get bogged down in the minutae. But you'll notice that the writers who wrote really mind-blowing fiction are the ones who could rattle off every last detail about their worlds. Their writing might be as sparse as floral smells in Phoenix, but you get the sense that if you asked, they could rattle off the ancestory of each character down to the tenth generation, and describe the exact shape, size and texture of each button on their shirt.

Is it really important to know that stuff? I believe that it is. Maybe not every last piddling detail, but enough that the world you've created is a fully realized place, with a history of its own, populated by characters who didn't just poof into existence on Page 1 and who will continue to live rich lives of their own long after you've typed The End - unless, of course, you killed them off at some point.

Consider this advice from one of Louis L'Amour's characters from The Walking Drum:
"Trust your instincts. Life teaches us much of which we are not aware. Our senses perceive things that do not impinge upon our awareness, but lie dormant within us, affecting our recognition of people and conditions."
What a writer is doing by exploring their world in such detail is creating an instinct for it. And when you've done that, when all of that knowledge is lying dormant within you, it affects the people and conditions of the story, and does so in such a natural way that it helps create the facade of reality. Think of the stories you've read that had you feeling as if you were reading about a real place. That feeling comes from the author having developed it in such depth that the writing itself became almost a matter of instinct. It becomes instinctive to the reader, too. Things that happen, while they may surprise you, make perfect sense and feel right because you've developed an instinctive awareness of the story's environment and the people within it.

And so, that's my excuse for exploring things in such depth, obsessing over the slightest detail, extrapolating from my own experience and then taking it exponentially further. But creating a world that feels really real is only part of it. Exploring those details opens up new potential. The most inconsequential detail can end up having huge dramatic impact, taking the plot in a completely different direction from what you'd considered, or changing the relationship between characters in a subtle but fundamental way. It can keep the story from following much-treaded paths. One detail can change absolutely everything.

You just won't know which one until you've got as many as you can lay your hands on. And that means only one thing: the people who told you writing fiction is easy lied like Dick Cheney.


george.w said...

Fred Pohl said that "a writer when he's working is the closest thing to a vegetable you will find registered to vote." It's a process inside and does not take kindly to people chattering on about stuff in one's local environs.

I know this from writing a few short stories and a blog. In my imagination this is even more so for people who have to write fiction for a living.

Be safe. I sympathize about the creaking joints.

Nicole said...

This is one of those posts I'll be printing and putting up in my office, I think.

Jacob said...

As your friend and consort, I'm tempted to be offended that so much attention in this blog as been trained solely on politics and interweb humor that you have to put a disclaimer when you are posting about writing or the processes involved. Really, Dana. It's your blog, write whatever you damn well please - I'd much rather see more mind exercises than more articles about why the world is fucked anyway.