Friday, December 19, 2014

Pattern Matching

This week, I have been struggling my way back into the flow of Ubermadchen. I am theoretically in the middle of a major section that needs to have the same heft as the ones I wrote at the beginning of the story, only in the last month of the summer I kept telling myself that the story has to be fast-paced, swift-moving, and consequently nothing since Versailles has felt substantial.

The section I am currently writing is a big volta, or jump, in which the characters' priorities shift in a big way. They go against the path one would expect them always to follow, in favor of a path that on the surface resembles what other people have been telling them to do for months--and this, for girls who are fighting their way to their own independence, does not come easily.

I don't know if I am handling the emotional buildup well enough, nor the economics of duty and obligation. I don't know if I have the writing chops to handle this. I don't know if I know the characters or their milieu well enough.

But I can write it, even if I can't write it as well as it deserves. The underlying problem isn't the story so much as the way I've let the story fall by the wayside, and the way I've gotten used to distraction.

I miss Stanford. I miss feeling as though I am in the middle of things, surrounded by interesting people, staying up until 0200 talking, biking around to meetings and events and even classes. Now that I'm home, I cannot see my friends every day and it has led me to check Facebook, my email, my phone a whole lot more than I normally do. This is not good for focusing on work I need to get done.

This morning, I hit a good patch in the story. I left my phone to one side and stayed off the internet, and got almost 2000 words down. The story has now passed 150,000 words, which makes me laugh because I said after Orsolya that I'd write something shorter the next time. Well, and how has that worked out?

I think that the writing goes best when the characters have a lot of agency. That is, when they have a goal and can chart a path to that goal and carry out their own plans. When the characters are frustrated and stalled, so am I.

The brain is an overactive pattern-recognition device, and perhaps I am seeing mirrors where there are none--but it seems to me as though my distraction and my writing preferences have a common denominator, and that that denominator is empathy. A connection to people. I get restless at home because I am separated from my friends, and since the physical gap is unimpeachable I reach out electronically to see how people, my people, are doing. I empathize with my characters and so I avoid the story, avoid feeling the way they feel, when they would feel something I personally hate (i.e. powerlessness).

Empathy is a component of consciousness. The brain is a pattern-recognition device that at some point recognizes itself; and once it recognizes the pattern of being a subject not only in itself but also in others, empathy emerges.

(If I was a hashtag-user, I would put up a Throwback Friday to last year's senior project, which was all about this.)

(Also, the hashtag also taps into our need to connect with people. By using a hashtagged phrase which already has an accepted definition and usage, that already has weight in the cultural lexicon, you can tap into a social phenomenon bigger than yourself. Even in a society that makes much of individualization and independence, it is comforting to be a part of a group.)

But of course, the pattern undergoes variation from person to person. I am not precisely like my friends, nor precisely like my characters. That is why I can text friends for hours and still miss them. The only person I don't miss is myself, because I am always here. Empathizing with a friend and connecting by communication is not the same as having them with me.

The necessary imperfection of the match between the pattern that is me and the pattern that is other people also affects writing a story with characters. It explains why I can work on a story for a year and still not be sure I know how to handle the people in it. The characters exist only as mental models, and because they are not real people that I can know and talk to, sometimes it is hard to tell if what I am writing is convincing. Yes, in my mental model, they would do this; but what if someone else models them differently and thinks they would do the opposite thing? Someone with more in common with my characters, who starts with a higher baseline empathy because of those similarities?

This is getting abstract. Let me use an example I have been struggling with this week: Marilla. She is my main character and I adore her, and the MBTI type that I think represents her the best is the same type as my high school best friend (INFJ). One would think that I would know how to write her, by now.

And I do, mostly. But then sometimes I look up from my writing and wonder, would Marilla do that or is that what I would do in Marilla's situation?

Then, there are the basic demographics that cause me concern. I believe that most people are basically the same deep down, but I also know that some issues or ways of experiencing the world are invisible to certain groups of people who just never have to think about it. Because I am a girl, I will more or less be able to comprehend the sexism that the Ubermadchen face. Because I am not an outlaw, I will probably miss some psychological aspects of that. More specifically, Marilla is a Catholic lesbian and I do not know if, when I write her, I am missing certain patterns of thinking or certain challenges associated with those traits.

(That explains the music choice for today (see below). Also I wrote a scene in a cathedral this week.)

So far I don't think I've done a terrible job, but the point is that I wouldn't know. I cannot see my own blind spots. I lack points of reference. The parts of my pattern of "a subjective human mind" corresponding to...fill in the blank: European, religious, homosexual, not to mention outlaw and magician--are blank. I can try to build bridges from my mind to Marilla's, and hope that it works. It had better. If even empathy and imagination cannot yield understanding among different kinds of people, then civilization would probably fall apart.

(If I was a meme-user, I would say "that escalated quickly." And, like hashtags, memes are a way to signal or construct connection between ourselves and others. It is an insider's wink, an elbow nudge. It is comforting to be a part of a group. We want to feel understood.*)

*Or do we? That's another question I could get into. But not today.

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Take Me to Church - Hozier

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