Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sidekick distance

Rich and I went walking this morning hoping to see eagles, which were easily viewable all last week. This week their favorite trees are...just trees, not trees with eagles sitting in them, just trees, branches and leaf buds.

Still we persist-- and went to a different park this morning. We didn't see eagles but did see pelicans! A rare treat in the springtime since they are hurrying through to get to their nesting grounds.

We never get close, but even viewing at a distance is enough to make any day better.

And speaking of distance...all winter I've been working on a non-fiction story, actually set here in the midwest, that I'm really excited about. I finally have a draft and read it to my daughter Sarah, who knows a thing or two about writing, and said, "Do you think Evelyn (her seven year old daughter) would like it?

She listened and said, "Evelyn would like it if she were closer to the problem, closer to the action. It sounds as if you are telling the story long after it all happened. Evelyn would want to be on the scene while it's happening."

Aha! I thought, it's that old notion of "sidekick distance." [Sorry for the pun. Of course I'm referring to John Gardner's concept of "psychic distance." ] The way I understand it psychic distance refers to how far the story --and the reader--is from the character in the story. The author can have us viewing the character from across the street with no knowledge of what the character may be thinking; we can be told the character's thoughts by the author, we can be inside the character's head hearing the character's own particular language.

I'm not saying this is great writing, but I think these sentences are an example of a range of psychic distance from further out to close--
*The woman walked down the trail toward the river. Pelicans flew overhead.
*She walked down the trail to the river in the early morning, hoping to see pelicans.
*"If I see pelicans this morning, this will be a red-letter-perfect write-it-down-in-the journal day," thought Jay.

Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, we often want readers to be close to our characters. I want Evelyn to be walking in that Iowa valley, sidekick to my character. So how to do this? I think I need to add more details of the valley, sights, sounds, more details of the problem my character is facing, and change the pacing a bit so the solution is slower in coming, so readers experience some of the waiting for the problem to be solved. This is non-fiction so I can only be as close to my character as what I know he said. I can't make it up.

The funny thing about this distance issue is that I regularly tell my students to bring their readers closer to the characters in their stories. But someone has to tell me to do it with my own stories.

Perhaps it's a different kind of distance that I also need, the distance from the my story to be able to see where the gaps are, what needs to be fixed.

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