Last night in our workshop we spoke about psychic distance while we talked about a first draft. The term means “the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story,” according to John Gardner’s essential craft book The Art of Fiction.

(The subtitle of the book is “Notes on craft for young writers,” but Gardner is not talking about age. He’s talking about experience, how much you’ve practiced. It reminds me of the Thomas Jefferson quote about his horticultural skills, “Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

He gives an example of five levels of distance, from the greatest to a non-existent level inside a character’s shoes:

1. It was the winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never cared much for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God how he hated those damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

Gardner warns that “careless shifts in psychic distance can be distracting.” It’s as if the camera is dollying in, he explains. You would find a movie scene where the same character is framed further back, then in close up, then at a medium distance, plenty jarring. It’s the same way with writing. “The point is that psychic distance, whether or not it is used conventionally, must be controlled,” he says.

Then Gardner shows an example of writing that would drive the reader away, because of its jarring psychic shifts, all within one paragraph (levels for each in parenthesis).

“Mary Borden hated woodpeckers. (3) Lord, she thought, they’ll drive me crazy! (4) The young woman had never known any personally, (2) but Mary knew what she liked. (3)”

Become aware of your own voice’s natural psychic distance, through exercises and rewriting — and you can learn to be aware of how slowly to dolly in and out of the scenes that you film for your stories.

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