When you read a good writer the world, for that moment, can seem no other way. Crime and Punishment is imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world. Had Tolstoy written Crime and Punishment, we would have visited a different Russia world. One might argue that Tolstoy would never have written Crime and Punishment: But the point is not that Tolstoy couldn't have written that novel, but that Crime and Punishment is so imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world it's almost impossible to imagine the book written by anybody else.
To write, then, is not just to tell a story, but also to create a world--a context in which your characters live their lives in spite of the plot and not because of it.
These worlds can be fantastic (like the world of The Castle, by Kafka), ordinary (the world of Remains of the Day, by Ishiguro) or be a blurred landscape in between (Remainder by Tom McCarthy). They are shaped as much as by what a writer chooses to leave out, as by as what a writer puts in.
Most readers aren’t consciously aware of worlds. But they are aware of them subliminally This is why some people like English cozies when they choose mysteries and why others like hard-boiled detective stories. They are buying into a world they want to live in, a place they want to spend time in, as much as they are buying into a dependable plot. Worlds are far more elusive in fiction and creative non-fiction. People even forget that a short-story writer tends to create a definite kind of world through a series of stories. However all good writers create different worlds. And all good writers allow his or her readers to travel in a different country.
Learning to creatr a world in fiction often happens subconsciously, over time. (Indeed, just as most readers don’t think about the world, most writers don’t either--particularly writers of short fiction). Worlds often happen naturally, because writers incorporate the textures of life that interest them. These include qualities of weather and sky, cityscapes, landscapes, and sensate objects, ranging from furniture to fruit to velvet. One might say that “world” is the background, the “narrative” is the figure and the more you write, the more figure and background become intertwined. Another way of thinking about this is that the world of the story becomes an important part of the subtext.
Many unseasoned writers, however, never incorporate a world. (And a few published writers, who shall remain nameless, don’t either.) And although usually the writer just creates a world over time, it’s possible to increase your learning curve by beginning to notice what you notice. Here are a few exercises that may help you notice your sense of the world.
1. The Inner World: A Writer’s Log
a. Eavesdropping: You will be forgiven if you write good dialogue as a result. You can hear conversations in buses, cafes, phone calls at work. People often speak elliptically and poetically. Their voices are the chorus of the world.
b. Your own experiences:
An easy way to get a sense of your world is to spend a few minutes a day (it doesn’t matter when) reviewing your day.
We all have a running story we tell about our day, based on what we know we did. (Had to teach a class. Couldn’t find my keys. Raced over to it and hardly found a place on the UC Campus. Etc.)
This is the story I already know. But if I allow myself to sink to a slightly relaxed, unfocused state and let my day occur to me, I’ll probably see one or two images, or hear a few bits of dialogue that bring me closer to my sense of the world. (For e.g. caught myself in action writing on the blackboard--as if I were alone in the room. Or: The green rim on the white plate.)
You may never use these things in stories. But they’ll bring you closer to the concrete, sensate things that get your attention and populate your world.
c. You can work with dreams in the same way. Freud and Jung and any number of people have told us how to understand dreams. But no one can penetrate the precise inner logic of some dreams or the vivid imagery in others. Write these down without
a + b + c = a lexicon of your own subtext as you go about your day and into sleep. This kind of lexicon begins to help you understand that your own world is unique and interesting. As a result, you will begin to find your observations interesting (supposing that you don’t always find them interesting now)
. 2. The outer world.
a. Notice what you focus on to get news. Do you ever look at the Enquirer at the supermarket--the most surreal literary fiction in this country? Or race to see what the NY Times is reporting about fashion on the web? Do you not pay much attention to traditional news, but use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks? Do you think about the world at large?
b. Create a list of questions about your outer world and about the world of your characters. The questions you can ask yourself about your world are infinite. Here are a few examples (but please ask your own, too).
What objects matter to you?
What houses have you known?
What places do you imagine?
What do you notice on a walk?
Where do your characters live?
Where do they spend time in their houses? Where do they walk?
How do your characters feel about the world?
What do your characters dream?
What kind of imaginary countries can you create?
What is it like to walk down a familiar street as if you were from the future? the past? a spy on a mission?
2. The world of imagination
Everyone has an imagination and uses it in different ways. But
many writers ignore their imaginations, consigning them to the sort of writing that involves werewolves and vampires. Imagination is also linked to subtext. It’s where the writer allows her/himself detours on the freeway of the narrative. (What if my character notices the patterns of the couch? What if the river has a train at the bottom of it (from Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping).
a. Poetry is a wonderful way to find fellow travelers in
imagination and learn about subtext. William Stafford and
Celan are two poets who use language in very different ways. (If you read Celan, don’t try to understand him.) You can get numerous paperbacks of contemporary poets—both foreign and from this country. I personally think that every fiction writer should find poets they resonate with.
b. Remember what excited you in childhood. All of us, as children, were excited by something—whether superheroes, stories about golems, trains, fairy tales, puppets, cartoon characters, Legos, the myth that animals could talk at midnight on Christmas Eve, or that snow maidens came to life. When you were excited about these things, you didn’t have to know facts about them. That’s what the imagination is: Giving life and embodiment to what isn’t “real” in the world.
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