Charles Baxter, creative writing, creative writing strategies, defamiliarization, fiction, how to write, literary, literature, misfit details, narrative craft, nonfiction, Rachel Carson, short stories, Tolstoy, using defamiliarization, Viktor Schklovsky, writing, writing advice, writing craft
I’m back working on “The Vanity Set” again. Writing has been more productive than expected. I am an admittedly slow writer, so when I get a good page down, I’m happy. This story comes from the perspective of a 7 year old girl, which requires a much different approach than I’m used to. I wonder how effectively I can reveal adult information through the lens of a child. In fact, I’m fascinated with the whole defamiliarization aspect of this story, to see as a child again, when objects and events are new and surprising.
Viktor Schklovsky, an early 20th century Russian critic introduced defamiliarization and the idea that art makes the overly familiar experientially new again:
Art exists to help us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make us feel things, to make the stone stony. The end of art is to give a sensation of the object as seen, not as recognized. The technique of art is to make things “unfamiliar,” to make forms obscure, so as to increase the difficulty and the duration of perception. (qtd. Scholes 83-84)
In his essay in Burning Down The House, Charles Baxter explains defamiliarization as “a process in which the object is stripped of its usual meanings. It is desymbolized, widowed” (43) and taking away its familiarity “[removes] the tyranny of meaning over the event” (43-44).
It’s like forgetting the punch line of an old joke – no, more like telling an old joke in such a new way that even the punch line seems surprising. But how? Baxter call this “a technique for finding a certain kind of detail that resists the fitting of the object into…ready-made symbolization. Schklovsky advises a search for elements that don’t fit-misfit details” (42-43).
Misfit details. Is that to suggest using disparate details of an object to create a new view of it? Perhaps from a different vantage point than we are used to? If I take apart the details of a scene of a child hiding underneath a large dining room during a dinner party, I might take them out logical sequence and perspective: A cave of legs and knees; the secret language of holding hands and flirting feet; the lowlands of mismatched socks and worn soles.
Defamiliarization, however, must be more than a collection of reordered elements or images. Misfit details are not just meant to alter the physical perception of an object or act; their use also attempts to change an established world view. Schklovsky points out, in “Shame”, Tolstoy defamiliarizes the act of flogging by describing it as if seeing it for the first time. The act is described as “to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and to rap on their bottoms with switches….to lash about on the naked buttocks” (qtd. Scholes 83-84). Tolstoy avoids using ready-made labels for flogging, including the names for its parts. Instead, he uses parts of other related objects. He then raises the question:
Just why precisely this stupid, savage means of causing pain and not any other— why not prick the shoulders or any part of the body with needles, squeeze the hands or the feet in a vise, or anything like that? (83-84)
By defamiliarizing the specific act flogging, Tolstoy is able to shed a new light on a broader, more far-reaching idea. He asks us to consider why should we find one kind of punishment more or less acceptable than the other? More so, why should any punishment be acceptable?
But defamiliarization is not just limited to changing the way we look at socio-political issues. It can uncover another world, a state of being much larger than who we are. Take for example, the following excerpt from Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea:
The blackness of the night possessed water, air and beach. It was the darkness of an older world, before Man. There was no sound but all enveloping, primeval sounds of wind blowing over water and sand, and of waves crashing on the beach. There was no other visible life-just one small crab near the sea…suddenly I was filled with the odd sensation that for the first time I knew the creature in its own world – that I understood, as never before, the essence of its being. In that moment time was suspended; the world to which I belonged did not exist and I might have been an onlooker from outer space. The little crab alone with the sea became a symbol that stood for life itself-for the delicate, destructible, yet incredibly vital force that somehow holds its place amid the harsh realities of the inorganic world. (5)
Defamiliarization then changes the specific and the wide-view. It strips away the over-familiar and arranges its remaining misfit details to create fresh meanings and make the stone stony once again. That could also be said of good fiction, in that a well told tale makes us forget we’re reading about centuries-old themes, because their misfit details (characters, settings, actions , voice, dialogue, etc.) are being shown in an entirely new and surprising way.