Monday, October 3, 2016

Author Carrie Cuinn, Semiotics, and Worldbuilding without Visual Imagination

Author Carrie Cuinn joined us for a fascinating discussion. What would worldbuilding be like if a writer had no visual imagination? Carrie described to us how she had perceived herself as quirky adn different from everyone else, but only later realized she had a condition called aphantasia, which means she has no visual imagination. She is in fact participating in a study at the University of Exeter on this very subject. It's a more common condition than you might think.

So what are writing, and reading, about if you can't visualize? They are about meaning rather than images - and that brings us to the study of semiotics. Carrie notes that we should not trust Dan Brown to inform us on the subject. It's actually a school of philosophy, and one of her favorite sources is in fact Umberto Eco. Essentially, there is a language of iconography, which is how you put images and objects together.

Carrie introduces this concept by talking about Renaissance paintings. If such paintings featured small dogs, that would mean loyalty, for example. There was a deliberate symbolic significance to the inclusion of this image. She also encouraged us to think about the various features we associate with US images of the Virgin Mary, who is an icon archetype. It's about more than these simpler associations, however. The clothes (or hats) someone wears have meaning, etc.

Semiotics is culturally constructed and contextually based.

Often, Carrie says, people will write a story and give a person clothes or food but not think through the subtext.

Even the significance of an action like wearing a kimono to school will be vastly different depending on where the person lives, what kind of event (or not) she's attending, and what year it is.

When you're working in a secondary world, you have to consider two layers of semiotics: the secondary world semiotics, which are internally referential, and the real-world semiotics that the reader will be inclined to detect.

Ask yourself is something you include is appropriate to the context. Make sure you have knowledge about that context. Make sure you are saying what you intend to say.

Writing without visual imagination depends on you knowing the properties of an object, which you can do without seeing it with eyes closed.

Carrie says she only rarely describes people. She told us about a story she'd written where an editor asked her why the protagonist was a white male when everyone around her was a person of color. In fact, Carrie had written this character as a person of color appropriate to the context, but because she hadn't described the protagonist, the editor had filled in the identity of that protagonist with the cultural default. Internal point of view can remove you from the visuals of a character [my note: avoid mirror scenes!] quite a bit, but certain kinds of cues are needed by certain readers.

Carrie feels that with skin color, either none of it matters or it all matters - that we should describe light and dark colors with equal frequency. In context, objects and clothes also become very important. Carrie says she creates the semiotics of the secondary world, but if it runs counter to the defaults of our own world, she makes sure to explain it. She also told us about a workshop she was part of where a student had submitted a flash story involving the arrangement of dinner forks (fish, meat, vs. salad forks). Some people who read the story didn't look up the manners and rules surrounding the placement of silverware. They could enjoy the story, but those who took the time to look up those rules got more out of the story.

Carrie wrote a story where a weird owl appears - it's got long stork legs and a crown. In fact, it's a demon called stolas, who is a prince of Hell and has special knowledge in science and astronomy. She leaves it there as an Easter eggs. She says she leaves Easter eggs like this "in everything I've ever written."

Much of our knowledge - of symbolism, etc - is subconscious.

Carrie said when she watches movies it feels "like two people are speaking at the same time" because of the explicit messages of the dialogue and the implicit messages of the imagery. When she edits, she catches extra layers of mean (intentional or unintentional).

You may catch a lot subconsciously from a painting that comes from a familiar culture, like the French painting of freedom, but critics at the time had explicit knowledge of the significance of particular details of appearance, clothing, who is present, physical position, etc. in such a painting.

The more distant you are from the origins of an image, the more you will be inclined to overlay the meanings taught by your modern culture onto it. People who "discovered" Troy or Stonehenge did just this. The discoverers of Egyptian tombs didn't understand what they were seeing. They thought "Oh, how primitive," and only later did they realize this was language and culture from a different time period.

When you see ruins (in a story, a movie, or in life) you have history in front of you. You may not immediately know what it means, or which room was the kitchen, or what you did there. It's useful, as in Tolkien, if you have a three thousand year old person who knows exactly what it meant.

Carrie feels that food needs to be more of a quest, because people have historically done a lot of work to procure food. She also notes that if you find shells eighty  miles from the seashore, they may not have special significance, but may have hopped there via normal trade routes.

It's interesting to write a story where the reader knows the meaning of the symbols but the characters don't. That includes stories like Planet of the Apes, or The White Mountains, or anything containing ruins of things from our own time. (Of course, there are many other options, too).

You can apply archaeology to almost anything, even if it's relatively modern. Carrie told us about a dig that took place in Vinland, New Jersey on the old location of Welch's Grape Juice factory. Just a couple of things they learned were that the kitchen wasn't attached to the house, and that trash was buried in the back yard.

Carrie says she loves to yell at the show Ancient Aliens, because it's a great example of people overlaying their own interpretation of context and applying it. The people on the show ignore scholarly writings about the meaning of the things they are seeing, and just make things up. This is one reason to be very careful about research if you are, say, a white person from Chicago trying to write a story about ancient India!

Carrie pays attention to how people dress on the news, or on reality shows. Clothes can give hints about genre and character. She says in the genre of noir, a woman wearing a tight dress and sensible shoes is usually a secretary, while a woman with a tight dress and non-sensible shoes is usually a femme fatale.

Sometimes the people of a region will turn some important symbolic landmark into a tourist thing to attract money to the region. So a show like Ancient Aliens can help a region because they can help get the message out that the government needs to recognize the importance of a particular site.

Carrie has some semiotics-related links on her blog, as for example a semiotics primer for writers, part 1, and a semiotics primer for writers, part 2.

Consistency is important. The rules are yours, and if you know what things mean, your readers will start to pick up that meaning. The hard part is to figure out why it means this to you. It's a good idea to study a place, to talk to people in that place, and to read about the place. Write a draft, she says, and then edit it. Find knowledgeable friends and then listen to their advice. Carrie says, "If you mean to be offensive, own it," but if you hear from a friend that something you've written has an offensive meaning and that is not your intent, then change it.

Everything relies on context, and each person's context is different.

This is one of the reasons that academic writing dedicates time and words to defining the terms that they will use. It gives them a chance to refer back to the context of the meaning and try to establish shared context.

Every person who will read your story is from 1 to 6 degrees of separation away from our context.

One reason it's easy to offend people is because you don't know what you're saying. Watch international movies made by local people, she suggests. She recommends the first season of Cleverman.

Go through your manuscript and look for anything visual (there will be a lot!). Each one is an opportunity. Characters will react to those things, adding judgment to the situation.

Carrie, thank you so much for visiting the show to share your experiences and insights!