It was EmJay Holmes in 2014 that introduced us to the idea of psychic distance during a seminar for writers organised by Joy Manne in a wind-blown meeting-room on the top floor of an old people’s home near Lausanne. As we scribbled fervently on scraps of paper or beat a story out of a laptop, two floors below, elderly people, predominantly women, shuffled wheelchairs around tables and chairs en route for the morning’s coffee and croissant.
Psychic distance? A seemingly barbaric term that conjures up visions of an incurable mental condition or the annoying attitude of a psychiatrist. In my understanding of the concept, it refers to the constant flux in narration as it moves closer or further away from the character whose point of view is currently at the fore. A movement from the particular to the general, from the individual to the relational, from the deeply personal to society at large, from extreme emotions to cold, hard facts, from heartfelt presence to time immemorial.
These multiple movements outwards and inwards, akin to a beating heart sending precious oxygen to the body, are not a mere literary device. They are the essential throbbing of narration that instils life into stories, conferring them with depth and breadth, with warmth and colour. They quicken or slow the pulse of the reader that beats in sync with the story. That is why I prefer to call them the narrative pulse.
Let’s have a look at the narrative pulse in the opening sentences of a novel I am about to publish, Stories People Tell.
Annie looked up, startled. Nothing ever happened in the East End.
We begin with a name, Annie. What is more personal than a name? Those who effaced people’s names labelling them with only numbers knew what they were doing. After the name comes an emotion, being startled. Startled? Confronted with an event so surprising it jolts us out of ourselves. The next sentence wrenches us too, with a generalisation about the world around Annie. Even if it is clear that it is her observation – the East End is her home – the mention moves us away from her, situating her in a broader context.
Yet, there she was, on her way home from school like every other weekday (…)
We shift from an affirmation of her to the act of walking and away to the path she follows and beyond, more generally, moving from place to time, to the fact that her walk is repeated daily.
Sure. She’d noticed the posters plastered around her community school and on the walls of deserted houses and warehouses awaiting demolition.
That the warehouses were awaiting demolition is her knowledge. She has seen them. She coughs at the rancid smell of oil hanging over them. She hears the crisp crackles underfoot as she steps on the broken glass of their windows. Yet these few words speak of a wider context. They don’t so much shift us away from her, as anchor her in a larger world and, in so doing, bring both her and her world alive. And we, as readers, enter her world through her and her relationship to it.
I tend to shy away from concepts, not wanting my writing to be over-shadowed by analytical constructs that could so easily become crutches or recipes. When EmJay first mentioned psychic distance, I found it intriguing and had fun imagining short stories that played on variations of that distance. But as I re-worked Stories People Tell three years later, trying to understand why, despite the fast-moving action, a section of the book seemed oddly pale and flat, I realised that the answer lay in EmJay’s psychic distance or rather in narrative pulse.
Paradoxically, when action dominates and the story moves helter-skelter forward, the narration can flatten out if the writer is not careful. The risk of constant action is that it can level off the beat of narration, blunting the story’s edge. How? The story moves forward on an excitement-driven mid-ground. Acts and words are urgent. The personal and the general are largely brushed aside in a rush to get on and a desire not to get in the way of immediate impact on the reader.
Finding the right balance between surges of excitement and action and the anchorage of characters in their world and the narrative pulse is not easy. Here is a brief extract from the end of the first chapter of Stories People Tell. Annie has just burst from candidate Kard’s campaign bus, flinging open the door in a desperate attempt to escape his groping hands.
(…) There was a sickening grunt from behind the door and it slammed shut, narrowly missing her but clipping her satchel. The blow sent her spinning. For a moment she was all feet and legs, then she flung out her arms to steady herself. Kard fared less well. He screamed when the door smashed into his face. A groan at her feet had her looking down. The bodyguard lay clutching his bloodied nose. On the far side of the bus, the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy screaming Kard’s name. All hell would break loose the moment they saw his mangled face. The carnage would be on every TV. Annie swallowed hard. What a mess! She ran.