Saturday, June 17, 2017

Put on your bifocals

A few years ago, I got a sinus infection so bad that it apparently pushed one of my eyeballs out of shape. Before the infection, I had 20/20 vision. After, things remained out of focus, and I found myself in need of some visual assistance.

Of course, at a certain point my eyes were going to need a little extra help anyway, so my second pair of glasses turned out to be the dreaded bifocals. (And let me just tell you, the first time wearing those was a trip. Literally, because I couldn’t figure out (a) where the floor was, and (b) what my feet were doing relative to the floor.) Even after a year and a half, I’m not used to tipping my head up or down depending on what I’m trying to look at. For instance, when I go to a hockey game at the arena, it usually takes me until halfway through the first period to remember that I’m not watching on TV, and therefore need to angle my head accordingly even though the apparent size of the little skating people is the same.

All the same, having gone through a few weeks where I wasn’t entirely sure that my vision would recover even partially, I’m grateful to be able to cheat Nature a bit and keep reading.

I was thinking this week about the power of bifocals—being able to focus on things both near and far despite the weaknesses of aging eyes, without switching glasses every few minutes—and how that relates to telling stories and writing poems.

Writers need to be able to view their work through a number of lenses, and switch between those lenses with a certain degree of ease. We wear one pair for rough draft work and another for editing. We filter our work depending on the setting or the perspective of the narrator, the market at which we’re aiming or the images we want to linger in our readers’ minds. Recently I drafted a story, one that has some resonance with my life out here in the real world, and I have an emotional attachment to those resonances. That was the story I needed to tell myself, about sisterhood and sacrifices.

Do these glasses make me look more intellectual? That's my 'I wish I was watching hockey instead of writing' face.

When I had saved the completed draft of that story, I took a moment to enjoy the fact that I'd finished something I didn't hate. Inevitably, though, I also thought about the ways in which the story didn’t work. I could see where trying to force the story into a familiar folkloric pattern, I’d weakened it. Looking at it through another lens, I began to see the loose threads and ways I could weave them back into the story. I spotted some places where I had sacrificed the emotional heart of the story for the sake of generating action for the plot.  

As I read other people’s fiction more thoughtfully, it grinds the lenses through which I see my own work. If I can learn more ways to see the patterns of stories—bifocals, trifocals, or more—the world deepens, the layers grow sharper for a reader. I don’t feel a need to outwit readers, and believe that anything I write should be a like a table set for anyone who happens to wander in. Not everyone’s going to like what I’m serving, but I can at least offer a welcome rather than a slammed door.

Yet at the same time, I believe writing and revising while switching between lenses can create worlds that feel more real—more truly resonant—for anyone who takes the time to visit.