ABC’s of Fiction Writing: C is for Cats (Yes, Cats)

Posted by on Mar 4, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

DSC_0031aThe Art of Defamiliarization

This is how not to draw a cat: a circle for the head, an oval for the body, two triangle ears, a squiggly line tail, four sticks for legs.  In theory, these are the shapes that make up a cat.  If you have seen a cat or a picture of one, you have this knowledge stored away somewhere in your mind and can pull it out like a manual if you want to reconstruct the image.  But when you look at this drawing, do you see a cat?  Does it provide you with an authentic cat experience?  Not really. The following is a scene from the children’s book Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken:

“‘I can’t draw live things!’ snapped Justin. ‘A kitten hasn’t any shape, it’s all fuzzy!’ He angrily scribbled a matchstick cat—four legs, two ears, and a tail—then rubbed it out with his fist and drew the same fist over his eyes, leaving a damp, charcoal smear on his cheek.

‘No,’ said Simon patiently, “look at the kitten, look at its shape and then draw that—never mind if what you draw doesn’t look like a cat. Here—’ He picked up another bit of charcoal and, without taking the tip off the paper, quickly drew an outline—quite carelessly, it seemed, but Justin gasped as the shape of the kitten fairly leaped out of the paper.”

To effectively recreate something in art and to communicate that thing to an audience—in drawing or in writing—you need to look at your subject.  You must see objectively and use the information that is in front of you, not the information you have been taught should be in front of you, or that you expect to be in front of you.  Open your eyes, but also open your mind—shed your preconceived notions. Wake up.  Look.

Russian literary critic Viktor Shlovsky coined the term “defamiliarization,” which refers to the presentation of objects in art as if seeing them for the first time.  He says, “…art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.  The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.  The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult…”  He says that as we become familiar with objects, we lose our sense of their entirety.  They become a handful of characteristics that represent the whole.  He says we see only silhouettes.

Catherine Brady provides the example of a traffic light.  Most of us no longer register the exact appearance of the lamp, the color green.  We skip straight to go, because it has become habit for us.  When we get used to an object, the image loses its shape and becomes a stand-in for an idea.  Looking at familiar objects, we see only the meaning they’ve come to symbolize, and our awareness glosses over the details that defined the object on first viewing.  In writing, letting this familiarity blur our perception can lead to clichés and flat, lifeless descriptions.  Before Nikolai Gogol, Vladimir Nabokov says, “[Russian literature] did not see color for itself but merely used the hackneyed combinations of blind noun and dog-like adjective that Europe had inherited from the ancients.  The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, the eyes of a beauty black, the clouds grey, and so on. It was Gogol (and after him Lermontov and Tolstoy) who first saw yellow and violet at all.  That the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day …” 

Make the world strange for your readers so that they will experience it anew.  Avoid clichés because they have become habitualized and lost their meaning and will not “create the sensation of life” for your reader.  Remove yourself from your subject, and observe it from an objective distance.  Describe what you see, even if it doesn’t look the way you think it should.

That is how you draw a cat.

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1-Viktor Shlovsky, “Art as Technique”
2-Catherine Brady, Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature


Hayley Battaglia studied literature and creative writing at Loyola University Maryland and graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program, where she concentrated in fiction. She works in an academic library and lives for art, dogs, tea, and great stories.

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