"I love this idea—the way any story is an amalgam between the written version and your own experience. We could have a contest where people draw the kitchen table in my story, or in Carver’s, and everyone would depict it differently. The round table you had growing up, or plates on the wall in your grandmother’s kitchen—these details work themselves into the way you imagine the story. And that was what I was working with: not Carver’s story specifically, but my memory of his story."
- Nathan Englander, talking to Joe Fassler of The Atlantic about the new collection. Full interview is here.
and this, of course, makes me go back to the quotation from jeanette winterson at the top of my blog as another example of this. the 'weak signal into the outer space of each other' is the text we strive so hard to make clear to our readers, and yet they are just 'stray words on crumpled paper' and no matter what i say, you will hear it like only you can. because your brain works differently than mine, has different images and experiences stored in it.
but in both cases we are talking about the same phenomenon, which Englander spells out a little more in this paragraph:
"This is something that's particular to fiction. You watch a movie and it becomes a movie in your head, but you don't remember it and mistake it for a memory. Only with writing do people say—when did that happen to me?—and then realize they read it in a book. It's because you construct what you read in your mind, and if a written reality is successful, it becomes a memory. Not remembered, a memory. That's how story functions."
and the thing is, this phenomenon is the exact same in the process of acting. what a reader does from page to imagination is what an actor does from page to body. (which means we, as readers, are all actors in our minds, loves.)
because an actor takes what is given in a script, and by their director, (they don't get to choose the table, but they do get to decide how they feel about it) and then they get to move around the space and flesh out (literally, with their own flesh) all the action that is to take place. not just the action, but every movement, and every emotion--exactly how to express the look of disgust they must give their partner at that one moment. in order to know that, in order to have a grasp of the physicality, one must be in total control of the mentality. in order to give the motivation that lies beneath every last thing portrayed on stage some real, truthful meaning, many actors take what is known about their character and infuse every bit of that--and every bit of back story they can come up with--with their own thoughts and emotions and maybe even experiences. they decide who in their own life their character's dead mother looks like, what the incident that started them on their emotional journey actually looked and felt like, where and when that one vacation that is briefly mentioned in the first scene was taken. they basically set design and storyboard the character's entire life.
so it's actually a super close and active reading of the text. but no two actors will interact with the same role the same way, which is just what Englander (and Winterson) is (are) talking about. and which is why watching a movie of a book is hard when the set designer and director can't see into your head and they get it all wrong.
i've thought for a long time about what would happen if technology ever develops to the point of us being able to download the thoughts and images and emotions in our heads (and hearts and things) into the head of someone else. wouldn't art then become unnecessary? wouldn't closing that gap between our heads make our starships redundant? wouldn't we all just have access to everyone's images and not feel the need to express them to each other anymore? i fear it, i have to admit, i do. because, then what?
i feel on some levels that my purpose in life is to make connection with other people through my words. if words become unnecessary, will i be able to function anymore? what will i do with my time and energy? if all the challenge is taken out of making yourself understood, is it worth trying?
because right now, the joy i get from trying is the one thing i've got going for me. and the challenge is something i'm willing to put a lifetime's worth of energy into. to have the power to put clear and (hopefully) compelling pictures into other people's heads (or to induce them to create pictures in their own heads), even if they look nothing like the ones in my own, that is worth so very much to me. and everyday i'm trying to nurture and strengthen that power. and right now i have faith in that power, not just mine but all artists', being a source of real and lasting good in this world.
(which is why i can't start talking about writing without getting to a meaning-of-life moment, i guess. :P )