At the brink of the familiar

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.

And yet…

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a...
Edgar Allan Poe at 39. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Up to the edge at the Grand Canyon. Thrilling--but don't step back.
Up to the edge at the Grand Canyon. Thrilling–but don’t step back.

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?

Read Bad Luck With Cats

My flash fiction piece Bad Luck with Cats went live today on Every Day Fiction. I hope you’ll read, enjoy, and pass it along!

13 thoughts on “At the brink of the familiar

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  1. I would rather find the unfamiliar in the content of the story than in the approach to telling it. The latter, to me, is just being different for the sake of being different.

    Let’s face it, learning would not work if the world didn’t hold still long enough for an experience you have one day to be useful the next. I prefer to have the useful things I’ve learned continue to be useful.


    1. I suspect the majority of readers are in your camp… which is why I may have a hard time finding an audience :-). But I try not to shake things up just for the sake of the shaking, but rather to give readers a new perspective. I try hard to have whatever form I’m using work in the context of the story.

      I love your reminder about learning. It’s so true.


  2. Great post, Audrey, and I loved your short story – lovely writing! Tweeted it for you.
    Yeah, I kinda hate change. It gets me a tad grumpy at times. But it’s best to laugh at our stogieness over things, I’ve found, since nothing stays the same, and who wants to be that grumpy old person who grumbles about ‘the way things were’?


    1. Thanks so much for Tweeting the story!

      I definitely DO NOT want to turn into an old grump. I find that it does take a lot of effort to avoid becoming stodgy, though. Laughter definitely helps!


  3. I find I am a risk taker in my writing. I don’t want to meld to whatever I’m supposed to do. My books tend to be cross genre. I can’t help it. It’s where the story and I have to go. 🙂 In reading, I swing back and forth. I love the familiarity of a cozy mystery, but sometimes I crave the unknown of speculative fiction and literary fiction.


      1. LOL. I get the same reaction when I tell people I have a degree in Finance and I write speculative fiction novels. It’s like they have a minor aneurysm. You can’t be good at math and writing. No. That is not allowed. LOL.


    1. Yes… it’s a little like the phenomenon that kids who are closely attached to their parents early in life actually end up being MORE adventurous. It helps to have a stable base from which to operate.


  4. I like the familiar when I read, but I’m also open to new styles. My book club (yes, I finally joined one so I’d get out and socialize at least once a month…) gets me reading books I normally wouldn’t. We just finished ‘People of the Book’ by Geraldine Brooks. Great read that I wouldn’t have navigated to on my own. In it, the reader follows the journey of an old Jewish book from present day to all the way back to the fifteenth century. Lots of back and forth between different time periods; new characters introduced well past the middle of the book; and yet, I loved it.

    As a writer, I still follow my familiar form. Too new yet to experiment beyond that, and at this point, I don’t really desire to.


    1. Book clubs are great for expanding horizons. Amazingly, I have never belonged to one, but you’ve replanted the seed that I should.

      We all need to be challenged to read beyond the familiar and I’m as guilty as anyhone of sticking to my favorite genres. Thankfully, I have befriended writers like you (and August McLaughlin and Kourtney Heintz) whose work falls outside my usual scope–and who give me great reasons to read!


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