The importance of ‘distance’

I’ve been reminded the last few days how being in unfamiliar surroundings has often been inspiring for my writing. I can’t count the number of times that first lines came to me while travelling alone. The first line of my Journey Prize short-listed story, ‘Sightseeing,’ came on a solitary visit to Niagara Falls. A woman asked me the question that I later used to open the story. I found her intriguing, and began to imagine who she might be and what her history was. The short fiction unwound from that moment.

At present I’m spending time in Maine, U.S.A. Not for the best of reasons, I’m visiting a seriously ill cousin, which means that in between hospital visits I’m spending time in the unfamiliar milieu of the ocean-side town of Portland. Yesterday I was snoozing in the sun on a beach (relief between hospital visits), when I heard a shrill voice shout, “Dad, Dad, I found a dead hermit crab!” I opened my eyes to see an extended family comprising of two mothers, five kids of varying ages from 2 to 10, and a rather harried looking father. One of the mothers said, “Examine it carefully Byron, but don’t touch it with your fingers.” The other mother said,”What the hell else would he touch it with, for Heaven’s sake?” My mind went into overdrive. In my story the man would be a Mormon (not uncommon in the U.S.A.). The women are two of his wives, fiercely competitive. I might tell the story from the kid’s point of view, making his childhood seem normal until he goes to school and discovers his family are far from what society considers ‘normal.’

I doubt I’d have had the same flight of fancy lying in the familiar surroundings of my local beach at home. In my case I find the ‘distance’ that travel provides me is the objectivity every writer needs to kick-start effective story-telling. It doesn’t seem to be the case for all writers. Alice Munro, recent Nobel Prize winner, sets almost all of her stories in the rather remote part of Ontario where she lives. But I think she gains ‘distance’ from the shifts in time she invariably includes. Showing her characters’ past alongside their present provides the objectivity needed to reveal their souls.

A classic example of objectivity in short fiction is Raymond Carver’s story Cathedral. In the story the narrator meets a blind man. The new experience gives him the ‘distance’ needed to evoke new and unsettling emotions. The conclusion to Cathedral is a mind-blowing and brilliant illustration of how objectivity — the ability to step outside our lives — can be a transformative experience.

It’s clear that objectivity is a necessary element for effective story-telling. It might appear an oxymoron, but in order to get inside a subject the writer needs to be well outside, looking in.

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