February 2, 2010

Inner Topology

I was raised 25 miles north of the small town of Lovell, Wyoming, at the southern base of Pryor Mountains. Our ranch nestled where the Crooked Creek valley opened out into plains. This is at the very northern tip of the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. This basin feels small ~ in the middle of nowhere with very few small towns ~ but if you look at an aerial photo of the whole of North America, it’s there big as day between the green of the mountains around Yellowstone Park and the small green strip of the Bighorn Mountains.

It’s weird. The aerial/topographic map doesn’t match the map in my mind in a lot of ways. In my mind, Seattle seems just as far away as New York City, yet in reality it’s a third closer. Omaha, because we have relatives there, feels just a hop skip and a jump, yet there on the map it’s a whole swathe of the country away.

Our interior lived landscapes don’t match the actual “objective” recordings of the landscapes. Not a new observation, I know.

I once did a report on “topology” in Miss Butters's high school math class. (A side note: If you were a senior boy in Miss Butters's class, you were the top of the heap. If you were a freshman girl, you had no hope whatsoever of getting her approval or attention. Or an A.) I don’t think I understood the report, even as I gave it. I talked about the mobius strip, that twisted piece of paper upon which you can trace a continuous line over all surfaces. I talked about deformations, or the stretching and shrinking of one object into another. Our inner topology is like that ~ deformational, twisting, hard to understand, hard to explain, but there’s a “science” or system to it.

It’s the inner topology that we’re trying to put on the page. I think sometimes people writing fiction try to be too “accurate” ~ maybe especially those over from nonfiction or professional writing. People will write, “He was five foot nine inches tall with sandy brown hair and blue eyes.” Which tells you nothing. What they should write is “Even though in looks he was average in every way, he came across as a seven foot quarterback with a super bowl smile.” Or “He was average in every way. If asked to describe him later, you wouldn’t be able to. He was neither tall nor short. His average-colored hair was average length. His unremarkable smile had no effect on others.” It’s all about the protagonist’s perception, not about fact.

Like many things in fiction, it’s not about the gnat’s ass truth. It’s about the emotional inner truth.

What I’m Reading Today: Elliott Holt’s short story “The Norwegians” at Guernica. Such wonderful details. Great things coming for Elliott.

Gosh, the good news just keeps coming! My friend and mentor Alyson Hagy has a great new book out The Ghosts of Wyoming. And friend Michael Czyzniewski’s story “Pregnant with Peanut Butter,” originally on Smokelong Quarterly, was selected for Dzanc’s Best of the Web!

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