“Our psychological reality… lies below the surface….” (Nin, Ch. 2, location 816)
The idea of exploring psychological reality in character is the basis of my fiction. Though I’ve only recently begun to display my writing, it’s an idea that has been festering for years, ever since I first read Nin’s book The Novel Of The Future in my twenties. My interest in psychological realities as opposed to physical realities was shaped by a need to understand why I preferred to live partly in my own world of the imagination growing up as a child in response to loneliness and childhood trauma.
Psychological reality runs, in some ways, counter to physical reality, though that doesn’t mean it cannot work in conjunction with it (and indeed, it must, or madness ensues). We have what we experience through the concrete contact we have with the world. It’s the life that we experience in the body and mind, the way we set up morning rituals, the way we do our jobs, meet people, eat, sleep, and speak.
Psychological reality is what happens to us beyond this, what doesn’t always come to the surface, whether we consciously or unconsciously realize it. If physical reality is the result or the path, psychological reality is the consequences or the effect. It’s as opaque as a black stone. We have to dive for it like the deep sea divers. It is made up of a tapestry of emotions, reactions, perceptions, and motives. It goes beyond simply what we do or see to examine how and why we do it or what lies behind what we see.
A story might be just a story to entertain us. When I wrote the first book of a historical mystery series last year, it was a story about the search for the murderer of a turn-of-the-century young woman, the daughter of a wealthy family from a small Northern California town. There were no hidden meanings, no examination of character, no tapestry to the reality. It was meant to entertain. When Anais Nin was a child, she wrote adventure stories in the spirit of Jules Verne before she came to the distilled and explosive character studies of the stories of Under A Glass Bell.
I agree with Anais Nin that American fiction has had a sort of obsession with realism. I think the idea of realism goes with the pioneer spirit of the American psyche, the desire to get down to the grit and shape what can be touched and molded. The end conquers the means. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s difficult to leave room for contemplating the wild violets when one is busy clearing the field.
A dictionary definition of realism:
“[T]he tendency to view or represent things as they really are.” (“Realism”, Def. 2, Dictionary.com; emphasis added.)
A further definition of realism as it applies to literature:
“[A] theory of writing in which the ordinary, familiar, or mundane aspects of life are represented in a straightforward or matter-of-fact manner that is presumed to reflect life as it actually is.” (“Realism”, Def. 4 b., Dictionary.com; emphasis added.)
I emphasized the above because I find the paradox of depicting life as it really is to be a complex thing that can best be handled by the arts. It’s about following the dream to find the hidden treasure or the nightmare, whichever it may lead.
In my short story “A Birthday Gift”, the idea germinated from an incident my mother told me about years ago. My father, working as a consultant for a chemical firm, had sought the advice of a younger colleague about where to take her for her birthday dinner. At the end of the evening, when my father went to pay the bill, the server told them it was already taken care of, refusing to say by whom. But my mother knew that it was the colleague.
I began writing the story as a vignette with the fairly interesting incident in mind. But what grew out of the creative process went way beyond the event itself (physical reality). The story became a portrait of the complex and pained relationship between my parents (though the story itself is not autobiographical). The young colleague was entirely fictional, since I had never met the man, but in the story, he becomes the mirror that reflects the destructive emotional life of the Stones and the wife Leanne’s realization of the emptiness of her life and her husband Carl’s indifference and arrogant reassurance as master of her fate.
In her book, Anais Nin sums up her approach to writing: ““[One can] only find reality by discarding realism.” (Nin, Introduction, location 115, par. 2). While I do think realism has its place in fiction (such as in the historical novel), we miss much if we do not venture into the wilderness of the psychic mind. It is the only way we can really know reality is it really is rather than what it is presumed to be.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
“Realism”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. <Dictionary.com>.