The Case for Psychic Distance
Tell us a little about yourself. Just so we can get to know each other. What you do for a living, what you love to read, a little about you as a writer and, of course, what you want to get out of this course. Include a picture if you’d like. It’s very helpful.
This shouldn’t be hard, you think. After all, you don’t even need to leave your house. You sit down in front of the computer to review your life. As you wait for inspiration, your eyes drift to the window; a single red bug heralds what upstate New York calls spring. It dawns on you that you haven’t done much in the last four months—2.5 loads of laundry a week seem hardly worth mentioning.
You wonder how much you should write. Too much will seem pretentious and too little will be off-putting. You do a draft for each. Then one more for good measure. You throw in a load of whites and decide to wait to see what the others will post. Besides, you don’t want to appear overeager by being the first.
After you organize the spice cupboard, you check the class page and find all seventeen members of the class have submitted their assignments. Now you’ll be the last, leaving the instructor with the impression that you are possibly a slacker and definitely not one to embrace risk. You get to work perusing your classmates’ bios so you can decide which of yours to use. Virginia has degrees in chemical engineering and physics and lives and works in Barcelona with her partner. She has written two novels “just for fun” and now feels she would like to “test her edges” with short fiction. Julianna lives in California where she is working on a new film. Her last documentary won an award you never heard of but which sounds impressive. She enjoys mountain climbing and Russian literature. She, too, has two degrees, both from Columbia, and is a former Miss Vermont.
The list goes on and your heart sinks deeper into your chest. Your classmates have careers and goals and publishing credits. They hail from California, London, Syria, and Hong Kong. The guy on the phone assured you this class was for beginners. Bastard.
Best to go with the short version of your bio, you conclude. No need to mention why you are no longer teaching. Might also be best to leave out your history at Jefferson Community College and definitely your part-time job at McDonald’s.
You also decide to change out of your pajamas.
Remember to call the Adult Literacy Center and cancel. Last week Pedro stared at your breasts the entire time you were trying to prep him for the citizenship test. Besides, you need to concentrate on your writing. Ignore the flashing light on the answering machine and get to work.
Instead of a picture of yourself, you upload a picture of your tallest cactus.
Apparently, “to develop our own craft, we must study the craft of others who have mastered the art.” Thus, there are weekly reading assignments on which you are to comment. You read the first short story carefully, making notes in the margins. It’s abstract, but you think you’ve got it. You check out the discussion question you are supposed to answer: How does the story fulfill the contract the writer makes with the reader?
You return to the text. As far as you can tell, it’s about a man who decides to hunt a bear. There is no mention of a contract for either man or bear.
You write copious notes of possible responses to the question you don’t understand, then wait to see what others say.
Others say most of what was in your notes. You got nothing now.
Writing Assignment No. 1: The first paragraph is crucial to your narrative. Write the opening of a short story with the first line, “It happened on the stairs.” Begin in the middle of things. Hook the reader immediately. The reader should know what the character wants. We are what we want. Character is destiny. That’s what makes the reader care. We must know who the narrator is. What is his relationship to the other characters, what does he look like, feel, want in life?
In 300 words.
You take a story you have written. Your friend Amy loved it and it could have started in a stairwell. You realize quickly that 300 words is not very many and so you carve away, gutting the phrases Amy loved. What you have left is a sad skeleton, but hey, this is only Assignment 1. You do want to leave room to grow.
No more waiting for others. She who hesitates leaves herself open to suggestions of plagiarism, or worse. You post first thing Thursday morning, your name now at the top of the list. Virginia’s the next to post. You read it, your grin growing wider with every sentence.
You suppress a giggle of what could only be described as nefarious glee. You knew it! You knew she couldn’t be good at everything! You choose your words carefully when you write your response to her assignment. A new writer doesn’t need criticism as much as she needs encouragement. You can be positive; you can find something. Shake your head in pity for your physics-laden classmate. Move the answering machine to the far edge of the desk to make room for your sandwich. Then sit back and wait to see how the professor will deal with this one.
Turns out he loves it. Says it’s brilliant; it has a lyrical quality; he can’t wait to read more of her magical prose.
You reread the instructor’s profile and recheck his credits.
His response to your submission is a little less enthusiastic. He says he wants to experience the scenes more clearly, through vivid detail, and to know the relationship of the narrator to the event more clearly. Grimly, you realize that is all the stuff you cut out when trying to get it down to 300 words. In the interest of self improvement, you reread your piece. A naive English teacher walks into the weight room to find her principal having sex with the phys ed teacher on a yoga mat. She adroitly records the incident on her iPhone and posts it on Facebook. After some consideration, you disregard his suggestion to make the scene more vivid. You are not a writer of porn, for God’s sake. You look to your peers for some backup here, but they follow the leader, echoing his words. “Thank you for sharing,” they all say. The refrain has a dull thud of finality to it.
At this point, you’re having serious second thoughts about this instructor, despite his alleged credentials. In fact, the picture he posted of himself in that Yankees baseball cap looks a bit shady, now that you think about it. Print it off and post it on the corkboard over your computer. Perhaps his staring down on you with those condescending eyes will inspire you to find your voice.
At the end of week one, he posts an enthusiastic e-mail in which he praises your class for your “insightful” and “thoughtful” responses to his questions and to each other’s work. He is “so excited” at the level of some people’s writing! Some of you have really impressed him! You realize you are not part of the impressive club and feel the same way you felt in third grade when Kate Conondario formed a club of girls who had the same sneakers, the ones your mother refused to buy you. You keenly remember the pain of exclusion.
Draw a Nazi mustache on your instructor’s picture, and get to work on Assignment 2. You must write a scene in which two characters get into an argument. Both characters desire something, but their desires must be subtly revealed through subtext. Show, don’t tell.
At this point, painful memories of Show and Tell threaten to cloud your writing. Block these out. Do not become caught up in the memory of a turtle named Franklin that you brought to Kindergarten in a shoe box. Forget about Franklin’s tragic death when Kate Conondario persuaded you to put him in the cage with her pet ferret so they could be friends.
Instead, write a story about a once popular girl whose life takes a turn for the worse when she gets knocked up at seventeen. The stress of the unwanted pregnancy, early marriage to a tattoo artist, and subsequent poverty cause her to develop alopecia areata and lose all her hair. At the age of thirty, broke, overweight, and bald, she seeks employment at her former high school, where she’s hired as a Lunch Lady. Name her Kate Conondario.
Taking the position that a hairnet is not only unnecessary in her case but also a violation of her civil liberties, she refuses to wear one while serving. This leads to a full blown argument with the principal, who has stopped in the cafeteria for a pork steak sandwich. But stay focused. Remember the guidelines of the assignment—thinly veiled motivation. What do the characters want? What motivates them? Insert some subtle suggestions that the principal secretly desires the overlarge chocolate chip cookie but his lover, the phys ed teacher, has told him he is developing Middle-Aged Spread. Meanwhile, Kate Conondario’s sharp eye recognizes male-pattern baldness in the principal despite his toupee, which, as it turns out, she secretly desires.
Your homework done, take a few moments to change the cat litter. The soft pinging sound of incoming e-mails is drowned out when you sit down to catch up on the latest episode of that show Amy told you about. Vocal cords pit themselves against one another while a glamorous triumvirate renders judgment. Who will go on to the next round? Of course, this may bring to mind Natalie who sang so beautifully at the fall concert.
Change the channel if this happens.
By the time you check your class page again, the Discussion Board has exploded into a flood of comments, most of which concern the work of Caroline Cho, an American living in Hong Kong. She has based her story on her family’s past; apparently, her mother’s mother was sold into some sort of geisha arrangement at a young age and shipped to America. After years in the sex trade, she escaped. Perhaps because of this, Caroline has never felt as though she belongs in America. But how can she feel at home in the land that enslaved her ancestors?
Seriously, some people get all the luck. Take a moment to curse your family tree, Caucasian and white bread; accept that you will not be able to count on your family for any good material. Your parents couldn’t even offer you a messy divorce.
Seethe as your instructor heaps praise on Caroline Cho’s brave choice to write of her family’s dark past. By now, you have the sinking sense that your story of public high school intrigue will be overshadowed by Cho’s tale of culture lost and found, and you are correct. The instructor feels Kate Conondario needs some “fleshing out.” We are not close enough to her. We need to know more about her. He suggests you play the “What if?” game with this character. Throw her into a series of hypothetical situations and see what she does!
Even now, it’s all about Kate Conondario, isn’t it?
However, the suggestion has merit. Amuse yourself with this game for a while.
What if Kate Conondario trips over the wrestling mats left in the hallway and is knocked unconscious?
What if her body is overlooked by the wrestlers—they’ve been smoking pot in the locker room—and is rolled up in the mats and stored away for the long weekend?
What if Kate Conondario extricates herself from the wrestling mat, dazed and confused, only to find herself caught in fate’s path once again when the pep rally goes horribly wrong. A throng of adolescents rushes out of the gym in moblike fervor, trampling her beneath their Sperrys?
Be encouraged by all the new possibilities you have uncovered!
But, the What If? game only works in fiction. Elsewhere, use it with caution.
The answering machine whirs and clicks, but there’s no time for that. Week three is upon you and your instructor is very excited to see what you will do with this week’s concept, something you’ve never heard of until now: Psychic Distance.
Now we’re talking! Your aunt is a psychic, crazy Aunt Veronica! Just last week, she hooked you up with Uncle Harold, who died years ago in a power-line mishap.
But alas, no. It turns out psychic distance is the “degree of emotional detachment maintained toward a person or event.” Sadly, it has nothing to do with mediums and out of body encounters, which is disappointing to say the least. The instructor suggests that everyone create a character and experiment with varying levels of psychic distance.
You sit down to begin, but you can’t possibly concentrate with your desk lamp flickering. How can you work under these conditions? Venture out to Walmart in search of a new lamp. Fine, stop at the cemetery again, but don’t stay long.
Back at your brightly lit desk, search your past for someone to write about. Decide on Franklin. Write a story about a tender-hearted kindergartener who takes her beloved turtle to school one day only to witness his violent death by ferret. You opt for the greatest emotional distance, describing with calm detachment the way the she-devil latched onto Franklin’s delicate throat.
Then clean your house, top to bottom. In fact, don’t stop there, but clean out the medicine cupboard, arranging your sleeping pills in alphabetical order. Delete all the extraneous items on your desktop, delete all the junk from your e-mail, delete the messages on your answering machine, including the ones from your school. Simplify! Simplify!
Feel good about what you have accomplished. Your life in order, you can now sit down to check out the response to Franklin’s demise, but you are distracted by the number of comments about the piece submitted by a student named Baseema, who grew up in Homs. Try to remain calm as you read her story.
It’s about a helpless turtle that is fed to a ferret. Oh, and the class is excited about the extended metaphor at work in this tale. The ferret is the oppressive Syrian government and the turtle, the innocent commoners of Syria, whose turtle shell is not strong enough to save them from tyranny, represented by the ferret. The young child who unwittingly brings the turtle to its brutal death is wearing an Uncle Sam T-shirt so the symbolically impaired among us will understand that he represents America.
At this point, it is perfectly permissible to release a string of expletives to your cat. She blinks sympathetically and you open a can of tuna for her. Then you construct a terse but carefully worded e-mail to the asshole who is your teacher.
Express, as professionally and tastefully as you can, your concerns about academic dishonesty. Call his attention to the time at which your piece was submitted and the time thieving Baseema sent hers. Call attention to the striking parallels between them. They are both about turtles killed by ferrets, for God’s sake. Make your best appeal for justice in an unjust world.
Steel yourself for the response that follows. Sure, there are a few similarities between the two stories, he says, but they are completely different representations of the turtle metaphor.
Do not reply. Do not, under any circumstances, reveal that you were not writing metaphorically. Instead, take a break from writing and let your creativity find another outlet. Possibly Photoshop. Discover that you can take your professor’s face and scan it onto a variety of different body types: Newt Gingrich, Angelina Jolie, Napoleon Bonaparte. No need to choose your favorite; make a collage. Then export it to Walmart and have it put on a coffee cup and a mouse pad.
Week four arrives without a flourish. It is devoted to “the point of narration.” Your instructor explains this is when the story is narrated in relation to the events described. He asks you to consider the linear plot of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and compare it to the modular plot of “A Rose for Emily.” Note the way both authors build suspense. As writers, we have the power to manipulate time, the power to create distance from events, giving the narrator the freedom to comment on them. You think this over. It’s an appealing idea, but you’ve hit a wall.
Maybe it’s the incessant calls and e-mails from your principal who assures you that you still have a job when you are ready to return. You wonder if that is fear you hear in his voice? Maybe it’s the call from the president of the teachers’ union, who leaves a message about some Employee Assistance program. Maybe it’s your mother’s constant advice to “get back on the horse” and call the school. Maybe it’s Amy, who won’t stop nagging you to call this new doctor…
Or maybe it’s because you need a hat!
After all, your instructor is wearing a New York Yankees hat in his picture. Perhaps all writers wear hats. Find your Red Sox hat and put it on. Stare your professor down and revel in the fact that the Sox are doing well this season and the Yankees are out.
Forget Kate Conondario. You need a new character. Make yourself a man.
Name him Alfred. It’s a nice name and he’s a nice guy. He works at the hardware store. No! The drug store. He’s a pharmacist who fills prescriptions all day: Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Cymbalta…
He’s not married but lives with his…cat. You rummage around in Alfred’s head for a while and learn that he likes euchre and polka dancing. This is probably why he is not married. Of course, Alfred needs a problem, some defining event from which you can find a point of narration. He could get into trouble at work? He’s privy to all kinds of secrets. Did he violate privacy laws? Betray a confidence? Or perhaps he saw something? Confronted someone?
This is where you hit a wall again because you know Alfred. He hates confrontation. He is neither hero nor villain. Alfred is loyal. Alfred is responsible, Alfred is…
Do not disturb the universe, you tell him as you erase him. You watch with satisfaction as the cursor swallows him up one letter at a time. He goes quietly, without a whimper.
At first, you are relieved he’s gone, but what is left in front of you is a blank screen. The blankness of it is hard to take. It’s worse than Alfred.
You begin again and again, but that white screen swallows up whatever you say. The right words are beyond your grasp. You can no longer ignore that voice whispering back at you, whispering the uncontestable accusation that you are nothing but a coward.
And a failure.
You cannot find the right distance between you and your failure, can you?
Go ahead and quit. You have things to catch up on anyway. With all this writing nonsense, you are behind on a whole season of Breaking Bad. Spend the next eight to twelve hours on this. While you’re at it, throw in a season of Downton Abbey. One series blends seamlessly into the next as the hours slip away.
Several days later, when a succession of season finales cuts off your escape route one channel at a time, face that screen again. You have an e-mail from your professor. Like all the other e-mails, it stares at you until you open it.
Where have you been? I hope my comments on your writing were not discouraging; they were not meant to be. But I wonder if, perhaps, Kate Conondario and Franklin are hiding the story you really want to tell? Sometimes stories will not let us go until we tell them. Tell the story that is important to you. That is all that matters.
This, you know, is true.
So turn off the television, turn off your phone, take down all the pictures on the bulletin board. Except the one of your professor with the body of a sumo wrestler wearing a sombrero. After all, that one is art.
And find the article you cut out of the newspaper and put that up.
Natalie will stare back at you with fourteen-year-old eyes that hold more knowledge than they should.
Create a new document, find the distance, and begin.
Write in the second person. It’s the trend now anyway, and you do not trust the declarative and are sick to death of the interrogative. Choose the imperative and take charge.
Begin with a young girl, a promising writer. Stay in the present tense when you describe how her eyes shine with excitement as she talks about To Kill a Mockingbird. From there, weave the tale of the English teacher who doesn’t feel right about seeing her in Mr. Costa’s room after school so much.
Put it all out there. Spend some time on the handsome History teacher. Tell how his door is always closed and one day you open it suddenly to ask him a question about progress reports and see him standing too close to Natalie. Remember how she did not meet your eyes. Start in the middle of things, that is, if you can find it. Remember the day you worked late and saw them in the darkness of the stairwell, the hushed whispers that sounded like fallen autumn leaves at your feet. You turned and went the other way. You said nothing because you did not know for sure. Even when her writing changed into something you did not recognize as Natalie. You know that we sometimes hide the story behind our words. Wonder if you were the only one who noticed her shell getting thinner. When her parents came in for Parents Night, remember your feeble attempt. What you say is cowardly and vague. Not surprisingly, her parents nod and tell you Natalie has always loved poetry. And finally, when, too late, you talk to the principal (you had to wait twenty minutes in the office for him to finish his conversation with the phys ed teacher, and while you listened to their easy laughter, you went over things in your head), words fail you then too, and he tells you these are dangerous accusations to make and you should not mention them to anyone else. Reveal subtly, through the subtext, his fear. Let the reader figure out, as you did, the motivation behind Mr. Costa’s sudden “resignation” and the glowing letter of recommendation that followed him to his next job, this one at an all-girls school…
Don’t stop there.
Accept the fact that there will never be enough psychic distance in the world for you to tell this part of the story. Tell it anyway.
Like everyone in town, you joined in the search for her. She had been missing for twelve hours, and each street was organized into search parties. Show, don’t tell, how your group wove its way through the woods across from Whiskey Hill Road. It was early November and the autumn leaves crunched under your feet like hushed whispers. They were coated by a thin frosty layer, the first snowfall of the year, and the light was waning. You had just turned the clocks back and darkness crept quickly upon you; it did not help, this turning back of time. You would have needed weeks, months, not a single hour.
Tell how you saw her blond curls, almost blending into the frozen ground as the dusk gathered around you. You reached her first. The gun lay beside her outstretched hand, her curls spread out on the frozen ground like a geisha’s fan.
It was cold by then and you were vaguely aware of your insides turning to ice, but you stayed there until the ambulance came. Don’t look away. Keep the details vivid and precise as you tell how the coroner came and they zipped her into a black body bag. Some of her blond hair escaped and obstructed the zipper’s path. The man’s hands trembled as he tried to free the strands.
Tell that story.
Then hit send. Send it to your professor, and to the principal and to the Union president and to the local paper and to the police department. And to Natalie’s parents. What the hell, go big or go home, and send it to The New Yorker and The New York Times and the New York Post. Send it out there. Send it everywhere.
Your professor will stare back at you from under that sombrero of wisdom, and in his knowing eyes, you will see a flash of approval. Hold onto it. You’re going to need it. Because, at this point, the only thing you can be sure of is this: The phone is going to ring. The phone will definitely ring, and when it does…