The Itch

(From the work of Geya Shvecova, who I came across while following the fascinating Twitter feed of Concinnus.)

I’m preparing to teach ENG 201 this spring, which serves as an introduction to more sophisticated kinds of researched reasoning and writing. It’s a challenging course for many students, in part because it asks them to stray from some of the strategies that they’ve been encouraged to depend on in high school and that still remain viable in ENG 101. It can also make for a difficult shift in perspective adoption. Some students intuitively feel the needs of the reader given their own reading needs, so urging them to give their audience something unfamiliar or unexpected that will elicit more serious attention is an easy sell. Some students, however, will understandably want to stick to well-mapped paths in terms of both their structural designs as well as their subject matter. And whether I like it or not, when it comes time for me to evaluate their work it’s virtually impossible to set aside the comparative tendency. Give me five essays on What I Did Last Summer and I’ll inevitably have preferences that bear on my response to the individual members of the set.

As a reader I find that my eye travels far too quickly these days. Efficient skimming comes with the gig, and when I chew on the news each day I generally know when I can breeze through some background information, some exposition, or some referential scaffolding. When I watch TV mysteries I generally know when I can check my phone as the director gets some establishing shots of the English countryside or offers a glimpse into the detective’s domestic life to offer comic relief; in horror movies I generally know when I can fast forward while a director stages some conventional suspense. Getting readers and viewers to slow down and really pay attention, especially those with extensive experience in a given genre, requires a little tactical disorientation. It’s a bit of a paradox: I think most readers want to feel both composed and discomposed, to feel at least a little uncertainty during the journey.

I liken it to an itch we need scratched, though in most cases we’d rather not be gouged or raked by claws in the process. The image above is a good example. My social media diet features at least a few servings of hypnotic imagery each day, but after a while even the most gorgeous moving mandalas can seem a little more ordinary. The wobble in Shvecova’s image caught my eye, however, and I keep scrolling back to give it another look, to consider the effects of the tremor. The same holds true for me in photography: I’ve seen so many framed and centered landscapes that any hint of asymmetry or disorientation occurs as a welcome break. And when it comes to writing just about anything that disrupts the patterns I know is almost guaranteed to engage me more immediately. In short horror fiction, for example, we are taught to look for the hook in the very first line. I’ve seen my fair share of editorial interviews in which that standard is reiterated and reinforced. As a reader I tend to like those stories well enough. The ones I find really compelling, however, often let me know straight away that I shouldn’t be so sure of my footing. I should be wary, a little apprehensive–the writer isn’t going to let me settle in to the readerly rhythms I expect.

I’ve just wrapped up a bunch of professional projects, and I find myself thinking about the itch as I sift through my writing plans for the next few months. Veer too far off the path and editors are apt to set a story aside; stride down the center and the manuscript might well become less memorable, dismissed as something seen before. To my thinking, at least these days, the latter is the less forgivable sin. I like my comfort as much as the next critter, but if I’m taking the time to read for pleasure I want to feel unnerved and unsettled, even if the effect is subliminal, operating at the level of my technical expectations. That comes with the terrible territories, I suppose: the same force that draws us to horror is apt to convince us to walk past the friendly park ranger and trust in the sketchy character who promises us that they know a secret way through the woods.

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