Writing Right with Dmitri: Being There
Created | Updated Sep 4, 2011
Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Are We There Yet?
Do you know the story of how Sequoyah, the Cherokee scholar who invented a syllabary, convinced the elders to adopt this new-fangled writing idea?
Sequoyah asked one of the elders to tell him something, which he wrote down. Then Sequoyah sent for his granddaughter – who told the elder what he'd said when she was out of the room. The elder got the point, and soon the Cherokees were almost 100% literate, putting them way ahead of my Scots-Irish relatives, who weren't nearly that well-read. 'Talking leaves' turned out to be an idea whose time had come.
You get the point? Reading is a substitute for being there. Now, how do you make that happen in fiction? You have to mediate the space/time for the reader. You have to facilitate experience.
In short, you have to help them to be there.
I could give you a lot of examples of writers who help you 'be there', but in this series, I've been sticking to public domain, for obvious reasons. So I'm going to talk about one of the greatest writers I know, Mr Charles Dickens. In 1859, Dickens wrote an historical novel set more than 60 years in his own past. If he wanted his readers to understand what life was like back in the days of the French Revolution, he needed to get their historical imaginations working. The first thing he told them was:
IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...1 – Tale of Two Cities, Book 1, 'Recalled to Life', Chapter 1, 'The Period'.
In other words, there was nothing penultimate about this particular fin de siècle.
Now, I'm going to assume for a moment that you don't know this novel, and give you a synopsis of the plot. If, like me, you practically know the book by heart, please forgive: There may be readers out there who've never had the pleasure. If you haven't read it, you might wonder how relevant a mouldy old tome by Dickens could be to the modern day and age. Dickens couldn't possibly have written about things that concern us in the 21st Century, could he?
A Tale of Two Cities is about life in London and Paris during the period in which France had its great revolution, when instability in one country affected the economics and politics of another (unlike today). The story concerns Charles Evrémonde, a French aristocrat who grows up learning what it is to inherit guilt by association2. His relatives are horrible aristocrats. Evrémonde decides to get away from there, and takes a boat to England to earn his living as a French teacher. Unfortunately, while crossing the Channel on a public boat, Evrémonde is marked for arrest by Homeland Security...er, spies for the British government. The clueless French teacher soon finds himself in the dock at the Old Bailey, on trial for his life. If he loses, he faces death by drawing and quartering3. Things look dire.
Fortunately, Evrémonde has smart lawyers. One of them, Sydney Carton, is the most vividly-described geek in 19th-century literature. (Sydney, who drinks rather a lot, has to wrap his head in wet towels before processing data for a brief.) Sydney's a rather sad fellow, but he comes up with the trump card that saves Evrémonde's life. What better way to impeach the identification of a crooked witness than to point out that the defendant and his solicitor look enough alike to be twin brothers...4? Case closed.
Dickens has a lot to say about life in England at the time, and the Revolution in France, which need not concern us here. Freed, Evrémonde marries, becomes a father, and all goes well until he's called back to France to help sort out the mess he's made by leaving his steward in charge of the estate. Of course, the minute our hero arrives in Paris, he's arrested for the sins of his family. By Revolutionary law, it's a fair cop – this time, even his friend Sydney Carton can't get him off. But can Carton save him? [SPOILER ALERT.} Carton does – by substituting himself for the French aristocrat, who after all has a family and no drinking problem. To me, Carton is the true hero of the story. Others may disagree.
I could go on about the virtues and relevance of this novel: how Dickens' portrayal of a former political prisoner is about the best analysis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder you'll ever read, how Jerry Cruncher and his wife illustrate the tension between bioethics and religious belief, or even how much the teenage son of teetotalers could learn about 18th-century drinking patterns5. What I'd like you to see is the way Dickens gets us to 'be there' at the end of the book.
It is to be sincerely hoped that nobody who reads this will ever be in a position to witness in person what Dickens wants us to witness in our imaginations: the Reign of Terror, when at least 60 people a day are being publicly beheaded. Dickens wants us to be there, because he wants us to think about what kind of world we live in. He's told us that he believes the Terror was caused by massive crimes against humanity: 'Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.' Now he wants us to see what the Terror looks like, as day after day, the victims are carried in the tumbrils toward the guillotine. He wants us to see what this industrial-quantity public slaughter has done to the humanity of everyone concerned6.
As the sombre wheels of the six carts go round, they seem to plough up a long crooked furrow among the populace in the streets. Ridges of faces are thrown to this side and to that, and the ploughs go steadily onward. So used are the regular inhabitants of the houses to the spectacle, that in many windows there are no people, and in some the occupation of the hands is not so much as suspended, while the eyes survey the faces in the tumbrels. Here and there, the inmate has visitors to see the sight; then he points his finger, with something of the complacency of a curator or authorised exponent, to this cart and to this, and seems to tell who sat here yesterday, and who there the day before.
Of the riders in the tumbrels, some observe these things, and all things on their last roadside, with an impassive stare; others, with a lingering interest in the ways of life and men. Some, seated with drooping heads, are sunk in silent despair; again, there are some so heedful of their looks that they cast upon the multitude such glances as they have seen in theatres, and in pictures. Several close their eyes, and think, or try to get their straying thoughts together. Only one, and he a miserable creature, of a crazed aspect, is so shattered and made drunk by horror, that he sings, and tries to dance. Not one of the whole number appeals by look or gesture, to the pity of the people.
Are you there yet? Because I am. I can see these people – and I am moved, not only by the ones on the carts, but also by the crowds watching, by the man pointing his finger at the curiosity. What has that man done with the birthright of his humanity? The whole passage which describes Carton's death is vivid and immediate, passionately engaging. (Of course, he's more concerned with helping a young girl, a fellow-victim, and there's a lot of discussion of what heaven is like that some modern folk might disapprove of, though if you were about to be butchered like a farm animal, you might appreciate that kind of talk.)
If all you remember is 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...', then I think you're missing the experience. Dickens doesn't want us to do that. He wants us to be there. He makes it easy to do so.
When we read, we go to other places. We try to see, hear, feel, understand. When we write, we have an obligation to facilitate the business of 'being there' for our readers. Dickens, with his vivid sense of space/time, understood this. He showed us rather than telling us.
Go and do likewise.