"Fiction brings forth forms and colors from the lines of black letters on a white page."
Lately, I've become interested in how a reader of a literary text, as opposed to, say, the viewer of a photograph, is given to imagine what is not there; how the gaps in the text allow the reader's imagination to flourish. Readers glean mental images of a landscape (physical or emotional) from the page, not necessarily exactly as imagined by the author, but colored and informed by the words on the page. The same is true when we hear a passage being read from a novel — in both cases, we bring our own emotional landscape and experience, our own travels, or the houses we've lived in and the memories we hold, to the "mental cinema" that is projecting images before our mind's eye.
At recent readings for Stray Dog Winter, I've read from the opening scene of a train shunting into the Soviet winter of 1984, Darcy en route to visit his half-sister Fin. He views the world through a young artist's eyes. And I wonder about this relationship between my imagining of this scene, forged from pieces of my own memory and a vision which imbues Darcy's observations, and how these are in turn being pictured by the reader or listener...
Darcy pressed his open hand against the shivering window and the edges of the sky seemed unnaturally close. A figure trudging alone in a snow-beaded field with a scythe. A scarved woman behind a wooden fence shaded her face as if there was sunlight. A row of sheets hung flat behind her, mute as teeth, and a pair of what looked like silver foxes capered in the snow. Darcy pulled up his Pentax and snapped a quick shot, feeling foreign, unaccountable. I could paint that, he thought, then he noticed the food-seller watching from the dark and noisy space between compartments.
While these details are particular enough, the color of the sky, for example, isn't described, the smells of the train aren't yet included, but they are, hopefully, conveyed in the spaces between words, not just the words and images and spaces finding their way onto a page. All of it being absorbed by the reader and translated by her own imagination, her own emotional landscape, experiences, and inventiveness.
...prefab tenements shaped like horseshoes, smoke gushing up from a towering Ukrainian chimney merged with a tattletale sky.
For some readers, a "tattletale sky" might suggest something political, an eavesdropping Soviet culture; for others it might conjure a dark colored sky, or subconsciously refer to wisps of clouds as are sometimes called "mare's tails" or even to a "mackerel" sky (which hardly makes sense, but who knows?). Regardless, it is intended to and hopefully does convey some sense of foreboding. But if it doesn't, does it matter?
The corridor rattled around him. A horse-drawn hay cart waited at a muddy level crossing, the horse unfazed, its nose just feet from the train. Darcy opened the window a slit for relief from the smell of onions and the breath of an Albanian who boarded in Warsaw in the middle of the night and kept putting on more socks beneath his sandals then guarding his bag on the seat.
As a writer, have I failed if my intended view is different from my reader's image or experience of it? I hope not — that would seem an impossible quest, that all readers should envisage the same landscape, the exact train corridor, the Albanian's face (which is later described). Surely that would require a quagmire of details. And, thinking about it, it would seem too self-conscious to even be aware of all this while writing a story, especially if one aspires to write, as John Gardner puts it, a kind of "vivid and continuous dream." You'd be popped right out of it.
Yet, having the luxury of finishing something and being lucky enough to share it, I'm curious about this strange conduit intimacy between the reader's or listener's imagination and my own, and where the two meet. And while this is no doubt far from original thought, it's new for me.