Penman No. 45: Distance and Intimacy in Prose

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Penman for Monday, May 6, 2013

VERY RECENTLY, over a long weekend, I was at the City University of Hong Kong where I had been invited to hold what they call a “generative workshop” for the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. City U’s low-residency MFA program has been a pioneer of its kind in our part of the world; what “low-residency” means is that you can take and complete most of the program from afar, online, having only to physically attend two or three sessions a year with one’s mentors at City U’s sprawling campus near the Kowloon Tong MTR station.

I’ve been privileged to be one of these long-distance mentors (in my spare time, of course, as I teach full-time at UP), and to meet and interact with the kind of international crowd that Hong Kong and City U’s unique MFA setup attract. (Of note, two Filipinos—Karla Delgado and Sheree Chua—have graduated from this relatively new program.)

The low-residency formula allows for both students and instructors to come from all over—Asia, the US, the UK, and Europe. This time, my “mini-residency” group included a French woman doing risk analysis at a bank; a Chinese teacher of American literature; a Chinese-American woman who returned to Beijing from Chicago; an American working for a high-tech firm in Shenzen; and a Chinese-Canadian musician. None were full-time creative writers, but all shared a passion for the written word, and all had interesting stories to tell, whether in fiction or nonfiction.

The mini-residency is an intensive morning-to-evening three-day workshop designed to generate ideas for new work, and my fellow instructors (this year, it was the eminent American nonfictionist Robin Hemley—who’ll soon be heading the Yale-NUS liberal arts program in Singapore—and the Indian novelist Sharmistha Mohanty) and I were asked by the program director, the Chinese-Indonesian-American novelist Xu Xi, to focus on the subject of intimacy: not how intimately characters feel about each other, but how intimacy (and its correlative, distance) might be achieved in a creative work.

I designed my workshop to explore how writers employ different approaches and techniques to suggest distance or intimacy in their work, primarily through description and narration. We took “distance” here to mean both the physical and psychological distance between reader and subject—factors that mediate the reader’s response to the text and, of course, the presentation of the narrative itself.

In both fiction and creative nonfiction, writers assume a certain standpoint or perspective vis-à-vis their subject. This has a lot to do with—but is not necessarily the same as—point of view. A writer might be detached and clinical in his or her approach, describing things and narrating events from a distance or from behind a glass wall, with seemingly little or no involvement in the unfolding narrative. And then again, he or she might be and might sound totally immersed in the scene, surrendering all objectivity to subjective impression, led on less by logic than by emotion.

The best writers know how to provide both accurate descriptive detail and an evocation of a mood or an attitude by which we can perceive the subject. In his story “Breasts,” for example, Stuart Dybek writes: “When Joe looks up, Marisol stands as if she’s emerged from the morning glories. She has a white flower in her auburn hair. Her flower scent obliterates the mix of pigeons, garbage, and motor oil he’s come to associate with Johnny Sovereign. She’s dressed in white cotton x-rayed by sunlight: shirt opened a button beyond modest, tied in a knot above her exposed navel, and tight white toreador pants. The laces of the wedged shoes he used to call her goddess sandals snake around her ankles. Her oversized shades seem necessary to shield her from her own brightness.” Note the use of “white” and brightness as a motif, the incongruity of “pigeons, garbage, and motor oil,” the “sandals (snaking) around her ankles.”

Sometimes authors will nudge our attitudes along with some fine and subtle commentary. Look at how Dino Buzzati opens his now-classic postmodern short story “The Falling Girl”:

“Marta was nineteen. She looked out over the roof of the skyscraper, and seeing the city below shining in the dusk, she was overcome with dizziness. The skyscraper was silver, supreme and fortunate in that most beautiful and pure evening, as here and there the wind stirred a few fine filaments of cloud against an absolutely incredible blue background. It was in fact the hour when the city is seized by inspiration and whoever is not blind is swept away by it. From that airy height the girl saw the streets and the masses of buildings writhing in the long spasm of sunset; and at the point where the white of the houses ended, the blue of the sea began. Seen from above, the sea looked as if it were rising. And since the veils of the night were advancing from the east, the city became a sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights. Within it were powerful men, and women who were even more powerful, furs and violins, cars glossy as onyx, the neon signs of nightclubs, the entrance halls of darkened mansions, fountains, diamonds, old silent gardens, parties, desires, affairs, and above all, that consuming sorcery of the evening which provokes dreams of greatness and glory.”

Note how the city is “seized by inspiration” and becomes “a sweet abyss”, and how “the long spasm of sunset” descends into “that consuming sorcery of the evening.”

And it isn’t just in fiction where the writer can manipulate the reader’s reception of a subject by calibrating distance. One of my favorite nonfiction writers, the surgeon Richard Selzer, describes an operation he undertakes with in-your-face immediacy:

“I follow his gaze upward, and see in the great operating lamp suspended above his belly the reflection of his viscera. There is the liver, dark and turgid above, there the loops of his bowel winding slow, there his blood runs extravagantly. It is that which he sees and studies with so much horror and fascination. Something primordial in him has been aroused—a fright, a longing. I feel it, too, and quickly bend above his open body to shield it from his view. How dare he look within the Ark! Cover his eyes! But it is too late; he has already seen; that which no man should; he has trespassed. And I am no longer a surgeon, but a hierophant who must do magic to ward off the punishment of the angry gods.”

This comes from an essay titled “The Surgeon as Priest,” so the religious imagery is intentional and necessary, but Selzer demonstrates how the physical can rise to the philosophical, as when he talks about opening up a patient’s body on the operating table:

“It is the stillest place that ever was. As though suddenly you are struck deaf. Why, when the blood sluices fierce as Niagara, when the brain teems with electricity, and the numberless cells exchange their goods in ceaseless commerce—why is it so quiet? Has some priest in charge of these rites uttered the command ‘Silence’? This is no silence of the vacant stratosphere, but the awful quiet of ruins, of rainbows, full of expectation and holy dread. Soon you shall know surgery as a Mass served with Body and Blood, wherein disease is assailed as though it were sin.”

We’re all a long way from being Buzattis and Selzers, but in my workshop, we took a look at how both fiction and nonfiction writers deal with distance and intimacy, and why certain approaches work best in certain situations. This led to the student-writer’s own exploration of his or her options when contemplating a work in prose: how far or how near are you going to be to your subject? How do you negotiate and calibrate physical and psychological distance?

Over the weekend, I gave my students a series of increasingly more complex exercises: first, to provide an objective description of a setting, any familiar spot in Hong Kong; second, to introduce a character into that setting; third, to give that character a problem; and fourth, to write a dramatic monologue, from within that character’s point of view, dealing with the problem and reflecting in some way the setting around the character.

City U’s impressive new Run Run Shaw Creative Media Center (pictured above), where our workshops were held, stands on top of a hill from where the lights of distant buildings glow and twinkle through the afternoon mist. It’s a great vantage point from which to appreciate the new, culturally resurgent Hong Kong—and to reflect on one’s own location in the great GPS of an increasingly globalizing literature.

2 thoughts on “Penman No. 45: Distance and Intimacy in Prose

  1. Hi Butch! enjoyed this piece – very informative and instructive. i took up accounting in college and it came a bit too late for me to realize how much i love literature and still remember the short stories we took up in high school. for those of us who enjoy writing as a hobby, thanks for being our virtual instructor though your column.

    Cheers!
    Bong

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