Along for the Ride


By Zach Powers

I moved from Savannah, Georgia, to the metro Atlanta area with my family in 1991. Because Savannah was our hometown, we drove between the two cities six or seven times a year, every major holiday and some minor holidays and some long weekends that weren’t holidays at all. The entire trip could be completed on two interstates, I-75 out of Atlanta, picking up I-16 in Macon.

In the mid-1990s, I-16 was a stretch of road for which you had to gameplan restroom breaks. Exits appeared only at wide intervals, and there was no guarantee an exit meant a gas station. All you could be sure of on the drive was pine trees. Several trillion lined the highway, a coniferous wall broken only by the occasional farm, cotton and corn and some crops I only now realize I never properly identified.

As a sufferer of severe motion sickness, I was never able to read in the car or do much of anything except look out the window. I know that narrow swath of landscape cut across middle Georgia about as well as I know childhood backyards.

It was on these long, boring trips that I first noticed the way motion works, how nearby objects zoom past while objects in the distance seem to float by, boatlike. This is, of course, an issue of my perspective and not one of differing speeds, and I was old enough even then to know it. This realization was hardly revolutionary. I wasn’t the only kid in a car, looking out the window and wondering at the distance.

Peter Mountford observes this same phenomenon, though in a chillier climate than Georgia, in his novel The Dismal Science: “Rows of plowed mud, frozen stiff, zipped by, a pure blur in the foreground, making an orderly fan of lines farther back.”

Noting variations in motion depending on the relative location of a narrator is a useful piece of writerly craft in itself, but it seems likely it’s one most of us intuit. We never stop to think about so much of our experiences.

It’s similarly helpful to know that large objects appear to move slower than smaller objects. A 747 going the same speed as a tiny prop-driven Cessna will appear to lope through the sky in comparison. This has to do with the fact that the smaller plane covers its own length more rapidly, or so I’ve been told. If I write an extra-large plane viewed from an extreme distance, I end up with a jumbo jet that seems to hover in place. That’s a detail I’ve just imagined only by thinking about the nature of motion, and it’s a detail I quite like.

I think, however, there’s even more potential in using the gradation of apparent motion if we apply it metaphorically to other areas of craft. How can I use this idea structurally, rather than simply to write accurate or interesting details?

Writers often talk about slowing down or speeding up time, how quickly a moment goes by in relation to the number of words dedicated to it. A single second can be expanded almost indefinitely. We can span centuries in the four words “hundreds of years later.” Considering the compression of time in terms of distance, though, reveals a perhaps counterintuitive insight: Less time tends to pass per word the closer we are to the narrator’s consciousness.

As the reader, imagine yourself in the passenger seat of a car and look out the side window at the passing narrative. If the narrative occurs in the distance, we can take it all in with a broad glance, using little space on the page: “A silo slid by in the distance.”

On the other hand, try to pay attention to everything whipping by right next to the car, and we get more information per moment: “The mile marker, the untrimmed weeds, cracks in pavement like the bulged veins in my dad’s hand on the steering wheel, the way the car’s draft pushes the grass in opposition to the wind, skid marks from a semi, starting dark and fading to nothing.” Too close, and the information can overwhelm the moment, obliterating time completely.

In my second example, a bit of characterization emerges in the comment about the father’s hands. This could be expanded with more direct thoughts from the narrator. Emotions, memories, and ideas all serve to slow down the passage of time, even as these elements require more words and therefore can pick up the pace of the prose.

The car window in the previous paragraph was both literal and metaphorical, but it can exist as pure metaphor in which sparer prose styles are more distant observations and wordier styles stay closer. Continuing our ride in this metaphorical car will allow us to consider how we naturally shift our attention from object to object (or, in our case, subject to subject).

Here is a partial list of things I tend to notice on car trips: cows, JB Hunt tractor trailers (years ago my dad, who worked in freight logistics, told me they were then the largest trucking company in America and that’s always stuck with me), the same make of car that I drive, horses (especially white ones, “White Horse” being a simplistic car game passed down from my grandparents), police cars, accidents, funny place names on exit signs, weird billboards, air strips for crop dusters, those giant oscillating sprinklers in fields, old farm buildings in a state of collapse, and Waffle Houses.

Notice that in my list, some objects were given a single word or phrase, while others required some explanation as to why I notice them. From our metaphorical car window, the simple explanations are more distant observations, and the longer ones are nearby.

No distance is inherently better or more valuable than another. My attention bounces from one object to another while driving without valuation. But the bouncing itself is important. My attention shifts not just from object to object but from depth to depth. Active, engaging prose tends to do this, too.

Note in this passage from Amelia Gray’s novel Isadora how some details seem to flit by (are distant) while others stir more extended reflections from the character (are near):

“Something was off about the furniture, Elizabeth decided. The wood was so dry she could feel the desire it held for her skin’s own moisture. She wanted desperately to rub a teak oil into the dresser, as close as it sat to the sun and salt air. Cover the wood and keep it fine, that was her thought. If it were up to her, they’d oil up the desk, the armoire, and the bed frame as well. They could fit a cloth cover on the heavy oak door, another for its brass knob and the filigree on the base of the bed and the glinting pulls on the desk. It’s a sad task indeed to keep the old things nice but sadder to see them go.”

If you ever find a passage-in-progress turning stale, look to see if you’re stuck observing from a single distance, writing time at a single pace. For emotionally close moments to resonate, they generally need to be contrasted by emotional distance. A novel that always stays close to a character’s feelings can get repetitive. A brief glimpse into the distance gives the reader a needed break. Again, distance here doesn’t have to be literal. A crumb on a table can create emotional distance as effectively as a light on a dock in West Egg.

Speaking of lights on docks, distancing the attentions of your characters can automatically create symbols in your writing. Objects observed from an emotional/metaphorical distance earn significance by the very fact they stand alone. Varying distances, then, also serves to create webs of meaning. Close to the narrator, we get interpretation and elaboration. Far away, we get pure objects less tainted by authorial intent. The more a narrative varies distance, the more strands of meaning it creates, stretching between and interconnecting the literal and interpretive, and the stronger the narrative weave becomes.

The following short list of details, from Raven Leilani’s novel Luster, comes in the middle of a paragraph that consists of more reflective observations (as the narrator considers what is likely her doomed relationship): “There is a brief sunshower that curls my hair. A bird that is not a pigeon. An old white woman watching me through a slit in her blinds. I check my bank account, and my automatic student loan withdrawal has left me with thirty dollars.” These details are quite distant, two of them not even warranting complete sentences, but taken in context, they complicate the narrative web, reemphasizing her sense of out-of-placedness.

As with all suggestions in writing, varying distance is not a universal technique. There are fantastic examples of writing that stick mostly to a single distance. In Call Me Zebra, author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi stays close to the narrator’s streaming consciousness, the energy of which is amplified by wordplay and philosophical musings alongside rapid-fire emotions:

“We made our way to one of the food stalls and sat at the counter. Ludo ordered for the both of us while I looked through the glass display case at a row of tourists sitting at the opposite counter. I felt a palpable hatred toward them, those stupid tourists with their white-gloved inspection of the most marketable qualities of another nation, another culture, their experience purified of the painful clutter of the past, of the horrifying traces of the accretion of history. While I pasted onto my face the same vacuous grin I witnessed on theirs, Ludo ordered wine, squid, poached eggs.”

Except for the final four words, all the details come with interpretation. This creates a frenetic pace throughout the whole book that effectively mirrors the workings of the narrator’s mind. So yes, an author can stick with one distance, but I would note here that the decision seems to have been made to achieve a deliberate narrative effect. In general, the more experimental or nontraditional a piece of writing, the less any talk of craft is applicable.

Often, meaning exists in the things an author chooses not to say. Meaning arises in the gaps. The reader makes the necessary associations to have a personal, emotional experience. The primary goal of varying distance in your writing might be to create more of these gaps. There’s no need to explain why an internal thought pairs with an external observation. The reader will be encouraged to look at the space between, to follow the strand, hopping into the passenger seat of co-creation with the author, and meaning will take care of itself.

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