Things Getting Written
My latest post is up on the unRival website. I discuss what we mean by “oppositional identities” in light of escalating violence against Asian Americans.
Life Getting Lived
Rowan’s always been early to his milestones; teething is no exception. He’s learning how to put himself to sleep with his fist in his mouth. But he’s also been pretty reticent to hit one big marker: turning over.
He decided to hold off on that until last week, when he flipped himself over in the middle of the night and let us think he was suffocating for a hot minute. He was perfectly chill being on his stomach for a sec, but his mom and I sure flipped out.
We were proud of him later, of course, but the little gremlin is only going to be having greater, more magnitudinous effects on the world from now on, and that’s actually what I want to talk about this week.
Rising Action, Falling Action, Knock-You-Into-Next-Week Action
I spent all last week writing a fight scene for my novel and it was actually really hard.
I’ve frequently been praised for the quality of my action-writing. I don’t typically think of myself as a very action-oriented author, and so this praise is good to hear. It feels especially good to get praised for something that doesn’t come naturally. But we also think way harder about things that don’t come naturally, that we treat as problems to be solved. As a result, we usually end up understanding them better than those things we’re simply good at.
Story-writing, for instance, is actually really difficult for me. There is no one optimal or rational path for the action to follow, and characters make surprising decisions from page to page. The academic in me prefers for one thought to follow another, but it’s incredibly meaningful and dramatic if a character in a story decides to do something unexpected or out-of-character. I’m still learning to make space for play in my writing so I can ease that burden a little bit.
One thing that’s helped me, though, is to think of physical action and sensation more in terms of philosophical implication. Yes, this helps me and only me, but anyone who knows me really well knows my brain thinks in implications. This is why I can sit and write about philosophy or theology for extended periods of time: every idea carries an implication about other, related ideas that naturally leads to a new paragraph. In fiction, though, I’m carrying this whirlwind of actions and possibilities in my mind from line to line, and controlling this flow of potential is wearying for me.
Luckily, there’s a device that helps provide some structure to this chaos and makes it feel more recognizable. I’m finding myself returning more and more frequently to a thing called impingement.
Oxford defines impingement as, “intrusion into an area belonging to or affecting someone or something else.” You might know it as a medical term for when one anatomical structure—like a tendon or a nerve—rubs up against another and causes pain. In writing, however, impingement refers to the sensation that one thing causes another to happen. As author David Madden puts it, “Impingement occurs when you arrange the syntax so that one word or phrase acts upon another…giving your style an active, dynamic quality, a sense of immediacy.”
In the writer’s tool kit, impingement maintains fluid action and a sense of leanness and meaning to the details. Chekhov’s gun might be one ready example: if the gun is onstage in Act I, we expect it to go off in Act III. That sensation itself is created by the illusion of impingement: the gun’s very being on-stage creates the circumstances which lead to its use. Bonus points if the stage directions regularly have a character standing down-barrel from said gun; if the character then does from a gunshot, impingement has produced our expectation of this result.
There are less obvious, lower-stakes ways to use impingement, too. Madden gives an example from Wright Morris’s Man and Boy:
“When he heard Mother’s feet on the stairs, Mr. Ormsby cracked her soft-boiled eggs and spooned them carefully into her heated cup.” The kinetic impingement of her “feet on the stairs” seems to crack the eggs.
Successful impingement, Madden says, “sustains a sense of movement within the [author’s] style itself, a sense of ongoingness”. A woman looks away from her partner, tears in her eyes, and then we learn it is raining outside as she glances out the window. Two characters are having a fight and one lets slip that they want to break up; off in the distance, a baseball flies through a glass window. A knight treks through the woods, meditating on his life of murder; frustrated, convicted, he snaps a branch between his hands and vows never to kill again—only to be set upon in the next moment by a gang of monsters who put his new resolve to the test.
Each of these scenes involves a combination of unrelated events, but fiction pairs these events together to create an illusion of causal relationships and heighten the drama. Effective impingement implies a kind of cosmic orchestration to the events of the story. In no small way, it mimics the divine hand of providence.
And that’s how we’re going to get philosophical about this.
How Do You Impinge a Time War?
Impingement is fascinating because it implies relation and, beyond relation, agency. It implies relation by cutting through the chaos of the world and establishing causal links between unrelated things—links which keep us connected to the momentum of the narrative. It implies agency because, where things are related, they affect one another in ways that sometimes feel deliberate.
In fact, active voice itself tends to imply agency and intention, even where there are none. One of the timeless tricks of fiction is anthropomorphism, or attributing human qualities and emotions to inhuman things. A mountain path, for instance, does not present a treacherous climb; the path has no capacity to actually betray anyone. Climbers may well feel betrayed by what at first felt like an easy assent, but that isn’t the path’s fault.
Semantics, you say? Maybe, but that’s part of the point: impingement and anthropomorphism are so natural that we barely notice. Calling attention to them therefore feels strange—or, when done effectively, it can even be a source of wonder.
One of my favorite books in recent memory—Amal El-Mohtar’s and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War—does this in the very first chapter, as one of its main characters wanders the surface of a world cracking under its first few post-apocalyptic moments:
A tremor passes through the soil—do not call it earth. The planet dies. Crickets chirp. Crickets survive, for now, among the crashed ships and broken bodies on thus crumbling plain. Silver moss devours steel, and violet flowers choke the dead guns. If the planet lasted long enough, the vines that sprout from the corpses’ mouths would grow berries. (3)
“Do not call it earth”. Already, this line implies a difference between living earth and dead planet; an “earth” is a world full of agency—relations between actors and actions. This blasted place has none of that. And yet, just a couple pages later, we see the narrator still speaking of the ruined world in terms of actors, actions, intentions and relations:
The planet waits for its end. Vines live, yes, and crickets, though no one’s left to see them but the skulls. Rain clouds threaten. (5)
Clouds do not threaten. Skulls do not see. It’s difficult to tell whether this narrator is underscoring the deadness of the planet through such attribution, or whether they simply can’t help but notice glimmers of persistent relation even in the ruins…
Metaphysics and Fiction
Story, Aristotle said, is mimetic. “Art imitates life,” in other words. Impingement adds depth and dimension to fiction because it emulates our expectations of real life—whether merited or not.
This instinct or expectation for meanings, patterns, and relations has become a special touchstone of contemporary metafiction—Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a ready example, and the horror-thriller podcast The Black Tapes features apophenia as a front-and-center theme and plot point. These stories generate their tension by at once criticizing the human capacity to over-determine meaning, and also acknowledging that such meaning may indeed exist precisely in the places where we deny it.
For his part, Alain Robbe-Grillet wanted to banish all impingement and anthropomorphism from Western writing. According to him, the story of modernity—of science and evolution showing us the meaningless chaos of reality—rendered anthropomorphic language outmoded, even dangerous because of how it maintained archaic ideas about the world and meaning. But through examples such as the above from This is How You Lose the Time War, we see that the opposite has happened in much contemporary art: rather than banishing anthropomorphism, we apply agency and intention to everything. This has the subtle effect of undermining the traditional idea that agency is a one-way street, with persons as nodes of action affecting their surroundings. Rather, everything is related to everything else, suggesting networks of relation, intention, and agency that go beyond what we consider “human”.
This is a fascinating space to live in. Here, spontaneity and absurdity intermingle with narrative intentionality and relational causality. Even our questions about God get more complicated. On the one hand, in the world-picture of someone like Giorgio Agamben, “[t]he divine government of the world is so absolute and...penetrates creatures so deeply, that the divine will is annulled in the freedom of men (and the latter in the former)... At this point, theology can resolve itself into atheism, and providentialism into democracy, because God has made the world just as if it were without God and governs it as though it governed itself.” Robbe-Grillet, too, sees the modern world as one in which the mystical will of God cannot be distinguished from quantum instability.
… But what if it works the other way, too? What if, even in our “secular” world, the ghosts of action and intention in our language can’t be so easily dismissed as apophenia?
My friend Anne and I talk about this a lot. Come November, we’re actually presenting a paper on these questions as they appear in Time War. I’ll keep you updated. For now, consider reading the book—or maybe watching the show Life Below Zero. I’ll likely be talking about that, next.