Recently, I gave up my e-mail program of 15-plus years and switched to a new one. (No one would accuse me of being an early adopter.) My experience in doing so—can you say “dragged kicking and screaming”?—revealed how deeply I cherish the familiar.
I shouldn’t be surprised about my affinity for the comforts of the known. I’m past the age at which I am the target of new pop music; the local grocery store only annoys me by rearranging items on its shelves. There must be an evolutionary explanation for the fact that our tolerance for new experience often diminishes with age, because it happens no matter how much we swear we’ll never let it.
I like life to be ordered in such a way that I can navigate it at night without the lights on. Years of experience tell me where the doorways are and I never encounter unexpected objects on the floor.
Readers, too, crave the comfort of the familiar. That’s why form flourishes and particular genres attract millions of readers. The characters may change, but the arc of a mystery or thriller, the arrangements of the elements of a romance, are like the familiar nighttime bedroom. You can get around with your eyes closed.
My imaginative life is far less restrained than my “real” life. (Though who’s to say which is which? If you subscribe to Poe’s vision, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.”)
In my writing, I tiptoe up to—and over—the edge of the familiar. I am drawn to stories with odd forms, layers of revelation, circular structures, and non-traditional plot lines.
Maybe knowing I can count on the comfort and predictability of my daily life is exactly what allows me to twist and explode the familiar in fiction.
I seek thrills on the page, not just in the content of the story but in the container for the story. And believe me, playing with the container can lead to a dark, scary room where you don’t know the location of the furniture or even of the walls or the ceiling. Just ask William Faulkner, James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf.
Readers: Do you crave the familiar? Are you willing to let a book take you somewhere utterly unknown—not only in terms of story, but in the way the story is told?
Writers: Do you experiment with form? Do you worry that your experiments will never never find as large an audience as traditional forms?