August 18th, 2006

The Eye of the Beholder

When I was little, I loved to read the labels on my Crayolas. It fascinated me that orange-yellow was a different color than yellow-orange, that the cornflower blue crayon looked so dark but colored so light. (And yes, I was the kind of kid who described things as “salmon pink.” Hey, it’s completely different from carnation, and miles away from my long-time fave, magenta. You don’t believe me, open a crayon box and see for yourself.)


It wasn’t long before I started wondering about other people’s perception of colors. I knew that my friends didn’t seem hung up on the differences between “green” and “yellow-green,” that many of them gave me baffled looks when I said something was really more “burnt sienna” than “raw umber.” (Guess they weren’t as into crayon labels as I was.) From there it was a short step to bigger questions, like: “When he looks at that turquoise house, is the color he sees the same color I see? When she hears the word ‘red,’ does she see the same color inside her mind that I see, or is the color she calls red really the color I call blue?”


I have ever had a philosophical bent. 

But nowadays I spend much more time thinking about the different ways people understand words. The way tone of voice can change a brusque statement into a thoughtful observation; the way a singer's style can turn innocuous sentences into an angry anti-relationship battle hymn; the way I’m often the only one laughing at remarks that the rest of the world should find completely hilarious—but obviously doesn’t. 


And there’s nothing we can do about it. What you see is what you understand, what you hear is what you remember—regardless of the artist’s or speaker’s intended meaning. Perception is everything.


In feature-writing, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. After all, I’m already a step removed from the reality I’m trying to represent—I’m the first reader, in a sense, trying to understand the statements my interview subjects make to me. Then I mold those statements together with research and other interviewees' quotes and my own inimitable brilliance to create a story for the readers out there, each of whom interprets my interpretation in his own way.


It doesn’t bother me so much.


In fiction, though, it’s different. When I write the world I see inside my head, it’s pure Elisabeth, and should—obviously—be interpreted only as I intend it to be.


It’s not, of course, nor can it ever be. Honestly, when I re-read my writing sometimes even I don’t understand what I mean—so how can I expect readers out there to get it? 


The real answer is that I can’t.


But the answer I choose to use is “specificity.” If I choose exactly the right words, if I use the turns of phrase that most accurately describe the scenery, if my verbs (and, when necessary, adverbs—see previous entry) are clean and strong enough to depict the action—well, the readers will still see what they want to see and interpret it how they want to interpret it. But I can pretend that they have no choice but to see things my way.


Ah, fiction. It's not just good for reading—it's also great for denying reality!