Through a Glass, Darkly

Although I haven’t had much writing time of late, I’m always thinking about it – about stories and writing and the way words hang together. And in the midst of all the things that have been keeping me from writing – among them copyediting and proofing a forthcoming novel and continuing the grind of renovations we’ve been doing on the house – something occurred to me.

d02f0-pavers1You see, I like these pavers.

I’m not housey. I’m not decoratey. I’ve been driven to the depths of frustration over having to make so many banal choices during the renovating process. I don’t care about tiles or paint or – god help us all – grout colour. But at the same time, you have to choose something. There’s a process you have to move through and perhaps not caring should make it easier, but it doesn’t seem to have worked that way for me.

Anyway, I like these pavers. I chose these pavers. There are altogether too many pavers – too many choices of every kind – in the world, or at least in our privileged Western version of it. But when I saw these, I actually went ahh.

So maybe I’m being disingenuous, with all this ostentatious not-caring. Maybe it would be more truthful to say that I so rarely see things that make me go ahhh, that make me feel like putting my hand up and actively choosing them.

But I chose these pavers. I like them. And that’s saying something.

But what I like more, is this:

I keep coming in from outside and saying, You know, I really like those pavers.

My husband gives me his little smile. Because he knows what I’m really saying is “I like these pavers when they are obscured by all sorts of things that have fallen upon them randomly.” “I like catching glimpses of these pavers behind the detritus of life.” “These pavers make a c1029-paversobscured1fine backdrop for the chaos which is in fact my first love.”

And it reminds me of when we used to look at houses. We would be driving around and something would catch my eye and I’d say “I like that one!” and we’d slow and then my husband would sigh and say, “You mean the one we can’t actually see?”

He was always right. It was the houses that were obscured that I liked, the ones where only glimpses of brick or roof could be seen behind thick forests of foliage or dense banks of shadow.

It turns out that what I like is glimpses, vagueness, ambiguity, the suggestion of something rather than its actual shape. The act of seeing through a glass, darkly. And I remember this, from Sunday School, from youth group, that whenever that verse would come up – For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face (I Corinthians, 13:12) – as if this were something to look forward to, that something in me would rebel.

It turns out that this is fundamental to the way I see the world, the way I want to be in the world, apprehending things in a kind of sideways fashion, valuing ‘gist’ or impression over clarity. It affects who I am as a reader, and as a writer. It quite probably has a lot to do with my love of poetry. And as I’ve moved through the editorial process with Surface Tension, I’ve realised it’s at the root of some of the issues I always have to deal with at this stage.

A while back, my editor said to me, “You know, you often write in a kind of circular way, not saying things directly.” She said there was room for this, if I wanted to generate mystery or uncertainty, but that I tended to do it all the time, to never quite pin things down. I could be more direct she said, get to the point, explain some things rather than hinting mysteriously at everything.

I had no idea what she was talking about. But I do now, thanks to the pavers, and the leaves which will never be swept up because the pavers come into their own, at least for me, when they sit behind them.

A few years ago, I took some sample pages of Surface Tension to a manuscript critique with an editor from a US publisher. She liked the pages, loved the voice, wanted to see more. But she had some issues. Certain things, she said, were confusing:

I reached for the wall, slapping the tiles with both hands the way I’d learned in swimming classes.

“Exactly level,” Mr Henshall always said, leaning over us with a stopwatch like we were in the Olympics or something. “Or – bam! – disqualified!”

Who, she wanted to know, was Mr Henshall? And why did he have a stopwatch?

… how Dad piled Hannah and Elijah into the Valiant, spinning the tyres as they took off and taking a big, wounded chunk out of the instant lawn.

Who are Hannah and Elijah? Why is it instant lawn?

But have no fear, she said. Some of this is easily fixed:

Mr Henshall, our PE teacher.
… my sister, Hannah, and my brother, Elijah.

See? And the rest just needs a line or two of explanation somewhere. Not a problem. Easily dealt with. And the voice is great. She loved the voice. And voice, after all, is so important.

The problem? What she called confusing, I called my voice. Or part of it, at least. And voice, after all, is so important. And adding those bits and pieces felt clunky, heavyhanded, exposition-y, to coin a term. Couldn’t readers cope for a paragraph, or a page or two without knowing exactly who all the players were and why things were a certain way? That seems like a natural process to me. It’s how we move through life, after all. I’m not trying to be mysterious. I’m trying to drop you into the narrative as it unfolds, equipping you to navigate it along the way, rather than handing you a GPS the moment you arrive.

Perhaps that does make my writing confusing. I’m not sure. I like to think readers can sit with some uncertainty for a while, that they can muddle their way through. That the process of doing so is a kind of discovery of the narrative world. And that in engaging in this process, they take on a kind of ownership of, or participation in, that world, that’s more active.

In any case, it’s been interesting for me to realise all this. Among other things, it explains why the copyediting stage is always peppered, for me, with comments like “Clarity?” and “Smoother?”

I don’t like clarity. I don’t like a smooth surface. I like to see things through an oddly refracted prism – through a glass, darkly. And it’s interesting to me that, in some ways, Surface Tension is about these very things.*

*It’s also interesting to me that the point of this very blog post itself is obscured by so many things, stealthily and repeatedly deferred behind a series of digressions and tangents and pieces of random foliage. You can hardly see the wood for the trees. It really, probably, needs a damn good editor. It’s also absolutely and exactly the way I like it.

2 thoughts on “Through a Glass, Darkly

  1. Kate

    Great post, Meg! I love your circular writing. And if it's any consolation, I could work out who Mr Henshall was without you telling me. I mean it wasn't likely to be the local greengrocer was it?

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  2. Meg McKinlay

    Thanks, Katie. This editor was arguing that Mr Henshall could be a teacher or a coach or a swimming teacher or someone's overzealous parent – the endless, confounding possibilities. I just don't think it matters at that point. And that explaining those sorts of things draws attention to the artifice of the novel, rather than letting the reader lose themselves in Gardner's 'Fictional Dream'.

    The examples I gave are fairly simple ones though, and what my current editor, who is very insightful about these things, pointed out is a broader issue, something I think is worth a bit more meaningful reflection.

    It's funny – I'm working on another Duck book at the moment and can spot myself doing it as I write – endlessly circling around things rather than just stating them. It's probably one of the reasons everything I write ends up being far too long…

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