Think about writing for a moment. Not the let me tell you a story kind of writing I usually talk about here, but handwriting; the physical act of picking up a pencil and writing a sentence. Think about how automatic it’s become, how long it’s been since you’ve had to pay attention to the way your hand moves or the little tics in the muscle that allow you to scribe an L instead of a T. How many little things are happening without your knowledge, or the way the physical sensation of holding a pen stops registering because the act of writing is all just an automatic reflex now. Hold onto that thought, ‘cause we’re going to come back to it.
Over the weekend I started one of my long-term projects in the name of the 80-point-plan – reading an anthology of literary theory essays with an aim towards filling in my patchy awareness of the field. My goal is to read an essay a week, trying to figure out what I can learn from the history of literary criticism that’ll help me write better. The anthology’s a big book with a lot of essays, making this the only project on my plan that I’m actually expecting to take longer than the year (success is achieved if I maintain the one-a-week pace). This week’s essay was Art as Technique by Victor Shklovsky, written in 1916, about the way perception becomes automated and the role art and literature plays in breaking us out of that mindset. I have to admit that I fell pretty hard for the ideas in this, because a lot of jibes really well with my existing understandings of writing technique.
This is where we’re going to get back to handwriting. It’s Shklovsky’s example, though I’ve fleshed it out a little when writing up above, and it’s a good way in to what he’s talking about when he uses phrases like the ‘automatism of perception’ in the quote I’ve snagged below. We have this process called writing, and we have a name for it, and as a result of that things become simplified and reduced. The sensations become an act, the act becomes a word, the words meaning becomes reflexive in the same way the act does – you don’t think about the definition anymore, just register its presence and move on. Essentially the experience is subsumed by long expose, registered as a kind of outline of what handwriting is.
“After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of it and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception…”
This is where the essay gets really interesting. For Shklovsky art and literature is kind of like Louis CK’s stand-up bit about modern technology– it takes something you’ve reduced to an outline through long exposure and brings back the vitality of the experience by looking at it anew (though Shklovsky places the importance on the moment, rather than the effect). Being a Russian Formalist writing in 1916 he uses Tolstoy as his example quite a bit, pointing out the way Tolstoy describes actions/activities as if seeing then for the first time rather than bundling them up in words like, say, flogging. Or war (and every writer, ever, is now sitting there thinking show, don’t tell, duh). Breaking open the word and describing the action isn’t the only way this achieved, although it’s the most apropos example given that I tend to come at things as a prose writer. Poetry, for example, prompts this defamiliarization through its syntax and imagery perceived from a new point of view. Visual art has its own techniques based on perspective (There are, inevitably, other ways of achieving this that aren’t marked here as well).
“The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the awfulness of an object: the object is not important.”
The core of the argument in this essay intrigued me on a couple of levels. I’m reminded of the way I tend to read fantasy books with seemingly incomprehensible names, drifting over the letters of Driz’zt Do’Urden and Blibdoolpoolp in favour of registering them as a shape used to designate a particular character (Heck, there’s a book I keep meaning to blog about, Anouchka Grose Forester’s Calling For You, which has a character who spends much of the novel being represented by a squiggly line rather than an actual name). It reminds me of why I wanted to write Horn and take on the idea of virgins and unicorns, reconstructing a genre trope that’d seemed to have been hollowed out by long familiarity. It reminds me of all sort of hot-button arguments, the stuff around things like gender and race, where people get anxious about the way their understanding of sexism or racism is detonated just as they think they’re getting their head wrapped around the issues. More importantly, I fell hard for Shklovsky’s argument because he absolutely nails why some of the books and films I love with a fierce and consuming passion are so important to me (or were, at least, when I first saw them) – their ability to unpick an idea and give me a new angle on it. While I’d probably disagree that this is the only way to make art (one doesn’t get a pleasantly plump figure like mine without understanding the value of comfort food), it certainly hones in on the real difference between stories that energise versus stories that comfort.
One of the more interesting aspects of this essay is its tacit acknowledgement that this process is rarely comfortable, and when it’s done right it should be confronting. When I first started writing this entry I tried to convert Schklovsky’s handwriting analogy into typing, but it proved to be a big mistake. Once I started writing about the action of typing, I lost the ability to write easily – typos abounded, my wpm slowed, and I became self-conscious off what my fingers were doing and the sensation of my fingertips hitting the keys (and the fact that I need to clip a few nails after I’m done).
There’s something revelatory in this essay for me as a writer because it really hones in on why ideas like show, don’t tell and make it new are such oft-quoted advice for new writers. It’s not telling me something I don’t already know on some level, but it’s pulling the sheet down and telling me why they work. I’m a “why do they work” kind of guy. Showing the details of a thing rather than using the familiar word for its process forces us to re-examine it, disrupting the automated perception that renders a word powerless – re-examining the experience of sailing, for example, rather than scooping them together under the singular verb. Make it new was originally applied to poetry, but for me it’s always seemed like a call to attack ideas on the thematic level – defamiliarizing larger ideas within our culture. An automated perception is often powerless and vague, regardless of where it happens, but even breaking open the idea of a word like hand-writing or aeroplane can reveal something powerful about the commonplace experiences of our daily lives.
Note: There’s going to be someone with a serious understanding of the Russian Formalists who will be utterly appalled at my reading of this essay, and that’s probably fair enough. If I’m way off-base with the reading feel free to let me know – I’m filtering all this through a fairly crude awareness of the classics and a tendency to cherry-pick ideas that make sense to me as a writer, so there’s pretty good odds I’ve missed a point in favour of seeing what I want to see. After all, I’m not a subtle guy – and when it comes to nonfiction I’m all blunt force trauma and thumbs 🙂
Also, if you made it this far down the post, allow me to reward you with links to two more of Chris Green’s stories that have gone live since I posted about his story last week – you can track down A Crazy Kind of Love over at Nossa Morte and Reservations at Expanded Horizons. That’s three stories worth of free Chris Green awesomness in the space of a week – always a good thing. It seems that sometimes the universe does listen when you ask nicely for stuff.