This meme surfaces on Facebook with depressing regularity. I wrote about it on my expired blog back in 2015, but I saw it again earlier this week.
There seem to be a never ending stream of people who like and agree with it, and every time I see it, I argue. It keeps me out of the Guardian comments…
There are so many different ways in which this is wrong.
First, it suggests that teachers are rubbish and know nothing of the “real world” – because that’s what this is fundamentally about. It’s an argument about the nature of reality, and who gets to define it. Now me, I’m not particularly authoritarian (pun not intended) and I like to rebel more than the next person. But just as a teacher doesn’t get to define reality for me, neither does a writer. I would prefer to engage with both before coming to my own conclusion. Which may change at any point in the future….
Second, teachers and writers are not always mutually exclusive groups. I expect quite a high proportion of English teachers – and these are the targets of this simplistic, reductionist, ill thought out meme – also do a bit of writing.
I’m going to lose count at some point, so I’ll give up here.
If you’re reading a story and the curtains are mentioned and if we’re beyond Ladybird books and Janet and John, there’s likely some meaningful thematic reason for the damn curtains to be mentioned.
Anyone who’s ever tried to write a story knows description is hard. If you write too much of it, it slows the story down. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, those are the parts that readers skip. If you’re otherwise offering them enough reason to keep reading and not fling the book across the room, that is.
If you don’t offer enough description then you fail to create a world in which the reader can lose themselves in the fictive dream. Your writing is too abstract and fails to engage the reader’s emotions.
So a good writer has to select the details they choose to include very carefully. They must be details which make the story come alive for the reader, they must be visual or sensory in some way. If you choose a detail like the colour of the curtains to convey something only about the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum then you’ve wasted an opportunity. Perhaps you’ll get away with it in a hundred thousand word novel, but not in a short story, that’s for sure.
There’s another question this raises. Does the author always consciously know what their intention is when they describe the curtains.
Perhaps you’ll guess what I think. Sometimes I think we barely know what we consciously mean when we converse in our daily life. There are time when we all say things and suddenly realise we have said more than we intended. Or is that just me?
Yet I’ve certainly had the experience as a writer when I’ve re-read a piece, and I see that I’ve written better than I consciously knew. (I’ve also had pieces of intended symbolism miss the mark completely and fall flat, of course.) Again, I’m just guessing, but perhaps a text that is being discussed by a teacher is more likely to contain the former – symbolism which works.
I recently watched a Masterclass video where Margaret Atwood said that at a reading someone asked her why there are so many bathtubs in her work, and someone else asked her why there were so many glass jars. Atwood said she hadn’t been very conscious of them, but they had stood out for readers.
She went on to say that there are a lot of flowers in the Handmaid’s Tale – pictures on a wall, flowers in a garden, different variations – and they are there for a reason. Flowers, and fruit in a bowl, are always to do with fertility – and like the women in the book, flowers are not just pretty and safe. Under the surface they are at war. They mean something more.
She goes on to say that readers will assume everything you put in a book is there for a purpose.
Isaac Asimov also confirms that writers don’t always know what they’re doing in this anecdote –
Reading is a collaborative process – as is all communication. We all bring our own experiences to it, and every reading, every instance of understanding – and misunderstanding – takes the work of more than one conscious mind.
I am not saying there’s no such thing as misunderstanding. Of course there is. Sometimes it is just mistaken, sometimes it is self-evidently wilful.
However there is nothing clear cut about these blue curtains. They could be a pretty floral print that represent depression because they are failing to keep daylight at bay on a bright sunny day. They could be a deep blue silk velvet that represent security and safety to a girl who grew up on a sink estate with grey nets and Woolworth’s flimsiest polyester
If they’re in a story, they may well be more than just curtains.
The paraphrased Margaret Atwood is from her Masterclass course, Lesson Eleven, Revealing the World Through Sensory Imagery
Video The amazing ways plants defend themselves – Valentin Hammoudi
(Post updated 19th/12/21 to add the quotation from Asimov which appeared today in FB memories)