Controlling the Distance between Reader and Character: The Primary Process

Ken Kaye1

It wasn’t my conscious intention, when I embarked on the literary journey called “low residency MFA,” that I would circle back to theories of cognitive development, parent-child interaction, first language acquisition and the origins of self—studies I had pursued nearly forty years ago. The mind works in curious ways. It was the lectures, particularly two by Douglas Bauer2, that made me realize teachers of the craft of writing were raising questions on which my earlier discipline could shed some light.

The first question was, How do we create vivid scenes in readers’ minds with relatively few words? Each reader brings his or her own life’s experience and imaginative faculties to the process; how can a writer be effective in such an interactive process with strangers, from differing cultures, even—in the best cases—centuries after the writer is already dead?

The second question was, What draws a reader to identify or empathize with particular characters? Together, the two questions take us back to the fundamental level of mental life that psychologists aptly call “the primary process.”

Consider this passage, in which the description of a young woman is fairly specific:

Elsie Seidel, his high-school girlfriend, the daughter of a country feed-and-hardware merchant, had always been smartly turned out, with polished penny loafers and ribbed knee socks and sweeping skirts and broad belts in the New Look style, and with tortoiseshell barrettes gleaming in the bouncy light-brown waves of her hair. And plenty of lipstick, maroon lipstick that looked black in Kodak snapshots …3

Who is this about? One might say, a girl named Elsie; and indeed she has the title role in the story. But do we identify with Elsie, see ourselves in her? No: It’s only about what she looked like. The last sentence continues:

… and rubbed off on his mouth so that afterward it stung to get it all off with spit on a handkerchief.

So the whole passage, and the story, is about the man whose girlfriend Elsie was. As soon as his spit and handkerchief have been employed, the physical sensation of rubbing lipstick off his mouth, and the implied urgency of removing Elsie’s traces from his lips before facing parents, there cannot be a reader, male or female, who doesn’t relate to the unnamed protagonist.

Dare I say we identify with the lipstick-stained Lothario? Identification doesn’t mean the reader thinks a character is identical to, or even more similar than different from, himself. In fact, any conscious identification is no more than “I’ve got something in common with that character.” However, having spent my life studying from various perspectives the individuation of the self, I’m sure that when readers associate characters in books with bits and pieces of themselves, it isn’t by conscious comparison. Quite the opposite, it’s through unconscious empathy, irrational thoughts, and buried feelings.

What leads us to identify or empathize with a particular character—in any genre, by the way—is not the degree of similarity between us and that character. Too much similarity can get in the way of one’s entering into story. If I let myself consciously compare details in Stuart Dybek’s stories about boys growing up in Chicago fifty years ago with my own experience, I’d be distracted whenever they don’t correspond. Such an analytic, critical distance blocks a reader’s empathic identification with a character. It reverses one’s suspended disbelief. But if I read a woman’s memoir about her maternal grandparents’ bucolic estate in New Hampshire and her father’s alcoholism and bisexuality, none of which correspond to my own family story, the processes of identification become largely unconscious.  It’s when I associate parts of the woman’s character with parts of myself in what psychotherapists call the primary process zone of mental activity that I will most strongly identify with the memoirist.

A terribly oversimplified picture of the brain will serve for purposes of this discussion. We know there are sections of the brain that have more to do with “higher” or “secondary” processes such as numerical computation, logic, language rules, moral judgment and so on: conscious thinking. The left hemisphere in most people tends to be involved in speech and certain other uniquely human functions. People who are particularly creative, less rule-bound, and think in images more than paragraphs are sometimes called “right-brained.” Functions having to do with movement, attention to sensations, emotional response and (as a result of those) selective memory are located in the lower brain areas: hypothalamus, thalamus, and limbic system. The primary process doesn’t have a headquarters, as far as we know, but I picture it frequenting those basement service areas as well as the right side of the upper brain, floating in and out of consciousness, free of the constraints of logical reasoning. It’s the good stuff, in other words.

One can manipulate another person’s responses to be less or more emotional by calling upon either the secondary or primary processes, respectively. If I ask a friend, “How old was your son when your daughter was born?” the answer requires him to consult a database and perform a calculation. But if I ask, “What was she like as a baby?” an open-ended question inviting a personal, impressionistic response, drawing on a lifetime of associations to the word baby as well as a flood of memories of a beloved individual, I’m likely to elicit more feelings. Similarly, “What exactly do you mean when you say your father’s egotistical?” will nudge someone toward intellectualizing, because it’s a question about semantics. “What was that like for you?” does exactly the opposite. Emergency workers arriving on an accident or crime scene know the value of asking factual and computational questions to calm hysterical victims or witnesses; psychotherapists know the value of open-ended questions alluding to feelings, actions, parts of the body, and direct memory, to penetrate the intellectualized resistance and bring up buried or suppressed emotions.

That is exactly what Updike does in the lipstick sentence. Not content merely to indicate that the description of Elsie came from a boyfriend’s memory, he introduces action, a strong sensation, a mouth, even spit. He turns on the primary process faucet in our brains, accomplishing two wonderful things: we fill in a whole scene, placing it on a front porch or in a car or a darkened basement rec room, and we identify a little with the story’s protagonist—his mouth, his spit, his self-consciousness.

Note how this is accomplished with no specific description of him. This is often the case. Protagonists are in the business of observing, reacting to, provoking others. They may or may not ever, in the narrative, become aware of their own appearance. The detailed description of Elsie doesn’t make her the most important person: quite the contrary. Its function is to externalize her as an object of attention, setting us up as observers alongside the young man. The passage makes us feel as we imagine the protagonist might feel if that protagonist were us.

Much more is going on here than point of view. Empathy is point of view infused with primary process stuff.

In psychotherapy, a professional who finds it appropriate to heighten his patient’s awareness of her emotions might say something like “You sound angry,” or sad / resentful / jubilant / whatever. This can be quite effective, if he is right. A patient who is repressing grief, for example, will shed tears or even start sobbing when that emotion is referenced in a caring way, as if the word were a catheter plunged into the limbic system. But if the therapist doesn’t quite get it, or the patient resists the particular label—“I’m not angry, I’m upset”—then the technique backfires as her brain goes into semantics mode. But the therapist has an even more effective technique up his neurolinguistic sleeve: “Hearing you, I found myself feeling angry.” Who can argue with a first-person statement of feelings? And it stimulates the same part of the listener’s brain, triggering her own feelings and primary process associations.

These are useful skills for anyone to know, for times when the goal of communication is either to defuse or to intensify emotion.  The last example is exactly what writers do. We describe the actions or sensations or emotional reactions of a character and let the reader’s primary process do the work of identification and empathy.

The instincts of association and completion

Anyone who took a high school or college psychology course will remember numerous demonstrations of how human beings instinctively see groups and connections and meaningful shapes. We look at the random stars and see constellations. Witnesses to an accident see more detailed and predictable sequences of events than actually occurred. And readers see much more in any scene or character description than the writer put there.

My wife and I had a quarrel, and Rachel took the children and drove off in the station wagon.4

It’s the opening sentence of John Cheever’s story “The Cure.” You saw a station wagon: one of those big gas guzzlers from the 70s? A two-toned job from the early 60s? Or a “tin woodie” of the 50s? How many children? Did Rachel pack luggage for them? And was the narrator/protagonist standing in the driveway as his wife peeled out, spraying gravel, his six-year-old daughter waving tearfully out the back window? Each reader supplies such information instinctively, from inferences based on his or her own associations. Then the story consists of interesting changes to what we imagined.

A member of our species will always, innately, perk up at the challenge to derive images from partial information. Unconsciously, we populate our image with all kinds of information and emotions stored in the course of our lives. So it’s not surprising that readers will construct a whole scene from a few words. But the writer’s chosen words have the power to make readers (or listeners) identify with certain characters more than others. And to care what happens to them, even while knowing they don’t actually exist.

That, too, happens at the level of primary process.

The characters and scene may come into existence in the writer’s mind before she puts a word on paper. Alternatively, as writers we know they sometimes write themselves into existence (so to speak). Either way, after some words are set down one after another and exposed to a listener or reader, their effectiveness has little or nothing to do with how similar what the reader imagines is to what the writer envisioned. The work’s success is determined by whether readers are stirred or pleasantly entertained or otherwise satisfied by what they themselves envision.

Nonetheless, the writer can have great effect on how much primary process is activated—how much sensing, feeling, and personal associations come into play as opposed to conscious reasoning—while the reader is picturing whatever he pictures.

It’s axiomatic, in writing school, that readers respond when their five senses are evoked. But why? The answer is that sensory processes, even when triggered by mere words rather than by actual sights, sounds, smells, or textures, stimulate parts of the brain that are more closely connected to, affected by, and stimulating of emotion. Emotion is motivation to act (not to think). That’s how brains—all animals’ brains—work. Furthermore, the brain’s natural way of comprehending a situation is from an individual point of view rather than objectively or globally. All the transactions between writer and reader, envisioning scenes, come down to how an individual protagonist or narrator apprehends the scene. And one of the most effective ways of transmitting emotion to a reader is by implying them through a character in a situation, requiring the brain to supply actual sensations from its own stored experience. Unless one is autistic, one reads “My wife and I had a quarrel, and Rachel took the children …” and instinctively feels what one might feel if one were the narrator or a member of his about-to-be-broken family.

Identifying with one or more characters therefore is intrinsic to the active process of envisioning a scene. It’s not as if we first envision the scene, prompted by the writer’s suggestions, and then identify with a character. On the contrary, we envision as we identify, and because we identify. The two processes feed each other, which is how the writer holds the reader’s attention.

And we say that the events or discovery in a story or novel should affect the character. Why? Because the reader can be affected only as he feels the character being affected, in whom he feels parts of himself.

She was a lovely young woman with a sleepy look that was quickly dispelled by a brilliant smile. Her hair was pale brown and held the light. When she was tired or excited sweat formed on her upper lip. In the evenings I would walk to their house and sit with her in the parlor under the most intense surveillance.5 

As in the Updike passage quoted earlier, Cheever’s young woman is fairly specific: I cannot just project any woman into her. Of the young man, in contrast, we get no visual description at all; but he walks, and sits, and sees her sweat up close, and feels himself under intense surveillance. 

The details about the young woman make her the object of observation—by the nonspecific young man and by the reader. Male or female, it is virtually impossible not to project ourselves into his perspective.

Of course, the author may choose to give a description of the POV character at some point. But then there will be a tradeoff, a delicate balance between giving him enough features to be interesting and enough vagueness to elicit the unconscious processes of empathy on the reader’s part. Later in that particular story, Cheever’s protagonist tells us “I am not a tall man (I am sometimes inclined to stoop)”—and nothing else. Your surrounding cast of characters only have to be interesting; you can give them all the peculiarities you want, and the more unusual they are, the better, from the point of view of stimulating the reader’s interest. But if you draw the sympathetic character (the intended target of your reader’s projection) in very specific detail, you risk making your reader think. Consciously thinking about characters in a work of literature is the opposite of empathizing with them. Mr. Darcy only has to be interesting; a reader needn’t see anyone she knows in him. She does have to feel something of herself in Elizabeth Bennet. And not too consciously: If she thinks about the comparison, it squelches the primary process.

Hence instead of making us think about this young man, Cheever makes us feel as him. It would make no difference in this respect if the protagonist were “he” rather than “I”:

In the evenings he would walk to their house and sit with her in the parlor under the most intense surveillance.

Readers breach the gap as easily with a third person character as with a narrator. Drawing them toward a particular character depends little on 1st/2d/3d person. Nor is it equivalent to POV, as I can show by rewriting the passage from a more distant narrator:

Her hair was pale brown and held the light. He told me that when she was tired or excited sweat formed on her upper lip. “In the evenings I walk to their house and sit with her in the parlor under the most intense surveillance,” he said.

Our empathy is still with the young man, isn’t it? What we construct in reading is the feeling of being the protagonist in that situation, regardless who tells us about it. Again: She is very distinctive; he could be any guy infatuated with a young woman while forced to endure surveillance by her family. We only see the result of his intense surveillance of her. But we feel his positions as observer and as object of her family’s surveillance.

It is part of the writer’s job to plumb a reader’s unconscious and his recurring internal conflicts, and the part of his mental life—the primary process—where emotions rule, not critical reasoning. The secondary process is conscious thought, comparison, analysis and so forth. The primary process is so far from conscious thought that readers experience it in their guts, their hearts, and needless to say, their genitals.

Primary process across the genres

Examples of the observer stance as a magnet for the reader’s identification with a character are easy to find, in all literary genres:

His house is in the village, though.

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

There are two human characters in that scene. We don’t identify with the man who owns the woods and lives in the village and might resent someone trespassing, any more than we do with the little horse who thinks it queer to stop without a farmhouse near. The character we identify with is the one who gets no description at all. We identify, not because he goes undescribed, but in spite of that fact. We identify because he’s the one reflecting, and in this case for another reason: every word of the poem is broadly generic, vague, soothing in sound while eliciting primary process associations rather than definitive distinctions. House, woods, snow, horse, and so forth: the reading equivalent of easy wind and downy flake.

How about a memoir, this by a close reader of John Cheever:

Life for my father was either unbearable or transcendent. He watched the suburban women’s daily migration to the railroad station to drop off their husbands, and sometimes they were a band of angels wearing nightdresses under their coats, and sometimes they were the Furies, nagging and shrill at the wheels of their mortgaged station wagons.6

The best memoirs, it seems to me, though describing others, are really about their authors. In Susan Cheever’s memoir of her father, we find John Cheever as a watcher, yet it isn’t John with whom we empathize, is it? Despite the categories he and I share—middle-aged white males, fathers, and (in my dreams) fiction writers—I relate to the daughter’s experience of her father, though she seldom refers to that experience explicitly, and though my own life holds little in common with hers. She induces it by bringing me inside her perspective on her father, by subtle reminders of her presence in the scenes she describes.

There was always an excuse. He needed the drink to drive to New York or to the liquor store, or he needed it to sleep, or he needed it to get through a party my mother was dragging him to, or he needed it to dull the disappointment he felt in his children, or he needed it to work.7

If she had written “his wife” instead of “my mother,” wouldn’t the passage have an entirely different effect? And that phrase “disappointment he felt in his children” packs a punch. More than a punch; it’s a veritable IED, an Improvised Explosive Device, of primary process.

I might add that the last thought in the paragraph—he had to drink, to work—have the effect of drawing this avid consumer of John Cheever’s work into an uncomfortable sense of co-dependency. It would be astonishing if Susan intended that—consciously—but never underestimate the power of a writer’s unconscious.

How about a nineteenth century example?

It was the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety. Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be. She could not respect her parents, as she had hoped. … her father was more negligent of his family, his habits were worse and his manners coarser, than she had been prepared for. He … read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dock-yard, the harbor …; he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. … and now he scarcely ever noticed her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke.8

This novelist of two centuries ago understood (without being taught) that writing about one character’s appearance and manners, and another’s observations, reflections and feelings toward the first, was all it took to make her reader connect with the latter.

Sharon Olds’s book of poems about her father details how the dying man looked week by week. Several poems are equally descriptive of his wife, the poet’s stepmother. Olds gives little description of herself. Yet the poems, of course, are all about herself.

Dear Dad, I saw your double today

through the curtain to First Class. Reddish faced,

he had the pitted, swelled, fruit-sucker

skin cheeks lips of the alcoholic,

still a businessman, not fired yet.

I wanted to go very close to him,

I did not want to gaze at him or kiss him,

I just wanted to put my long

arms around him, smell the ironed

cotton, feel the heat of his chest

against my cheek, the big male body

free of cancer, the fine sifted

lumpless batter of the flesh.9

She’s telling us what she wanted—that’s a feeling—and those long arms of course are longing arms, but mostly she makes us feel her feelings and cry her tears by forcing us to imagine that smell of ironed cotton, that heat of his chest. More than a poem about the father, it’s an emotional journey into what you might have experienced yourself had you been her. And that lumpless batter, produced by a little girl’s careful sifting when making a cake for her Daddy? Primary process, sometimes known as Genius, presented that gift to the poet and through her to the reader.

The use of exquisite detail, as in the sweat on the lip, or Elsie’s tortoiseshell barrette or all those alcoholic fathers, is one way to jolt our attention and put us in the mode of picture-completing and unconsciously identifying with the protagonist, but it’s not the only way. Writers can go straight to the primary process, using words rich in sound and associations but (as in the Frost poem) denotatively ambiguous.

Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches. In back of the plateau were the mountains, and every way you looked there were other mountains, and ahead the road stretched out white across the plain going toward Pamplona.10

Painting with a broad brush and elementary lexicon—river, sun, trees, walls, churches, mountains—Hemingway makes us imagine the feeling of a car trip. Along with his predilection for highly generic words, the prosody here includes repetition, alliteration, rhyme and near-rhyme. All these elements draw us down to the lower brain, limbic system. Picture some mountains, he commands us, and then “other mountains”; the skyline’s precise features are irrelevant.

Another powerful technique is to have the protagonist ask herself a question. A young woman waits alone on a train platform, then gets on the night coach, which this author describes in extreme detail:

The coach was a relic with a decaying interior of ancient red-plush seats, bald in spots, and peeling iodine-colored woodwork. An old-time copper lamp, attached to the ceiling, looked romantic and out of place. Gloomy dead smoke sailed the air; and the car’s heated closeness accentuated the stale odor of discarded sandwiches, apple cores, and orange hulls: this garbage, including Lily cups, soda-pop bottles, and mangled newspapers, littered the long aisle ….11   

Next Capote describes two creepy fellow passengers at length, which I’ll skip—trust me, they’re creepy, and add to the claustrophobic excessive detail of the garbage-strewn coach until you want to jump out the window just to get some air.

And then, without warning, a strange thing happened: the man reached out and gently stroked Kay’s cheek. Despite the breathtaking delicacy of this movement, it was such a bold gesture Kay was at first too startled to know what to make of it: her thoughts shot in three or four fantastic directions.12

In what directions did her thoughts shoot? Capote is clever enough not to say.

He leaned forward till his queer eyes were very near her own; the reek of his perfume was sickening. The guitar was silent while they exchanged a searching gaze. Suddenly, from some springs of compassion, she felt for him a keen sense of pity; but also, and this she could not suppress, an overpowering disgust, an absolute loathing: something about him, an elusive quality she could not quite put a finger on, reminded her of—of what?13

He never says. He makes us ask ourselves Kay’s question, “what to make of it,” leaving us nowhere to turn but our emotional associations and unconscious fears. Concreteness makes the situation vivid, but it’s uncertainty, ambiguity about the character’s reaction to it that evokes primary process in the reader.

Here’s Cheever, too, putting a protagonist’s states of mind in the form of dialogues with the reader:

She must be in trouble again, but how could I help her? How could I get word to her? …  I wasn’t afraid. What did I feel? I don’t know. Bewilderment, crushing bewilderment, and some strange tenderness for poor Zena.14

When any narrator asks how the protagonist felt (if in third person as Capote) or how the narrator him/herself felt (as here), we can’t help unconsciously guessing, which in turn pushes us into the primary process, provoking emotions and empathy with the character—regardless whether the character is a sympathetic one.

An inexplicable chill always breathed on [Raskolnikov] from that superb panorama, for him a deaf and voiceless spirit filled the splendid picture … Each time he marveled at his gloomy and mysterious impression, and then, mistrustful of himself, deferred consideration of the riddle to some future time. Now he was sharply reminded of his former questionings and perplexities, and it seemed to him that the recollection did not come by chance. It appeared to him strange and marvelous that he should have stopped in the very same place as he used to do, as if he really imagined he could think the same thoughts now as then, and be interested in the same ideas and images as had interested him once … not long ago. This was almost laughable, and yet his heart was constricted with pain. In some gulf far below him, almost out of sight beneath his feet, lay all his past, all his old ideas, and problems, and thoughts, and sensations, and this great panorama, and his own self, and everything, everything …15

In that last sentence Dostoevsky might well be describing, and physically locating, the primary processes.

How do writers and readers learn this?

An approach to understanding any psychological process is to look at it developmentally. How do readers develop the ability to create mental scenes from slim suggestions?  When and how do children become able to project themselves into characters’ actions and feelings?

Primary process is primary in the sense that it precedes the age of reason. It’s the way very young children make associations, before they even have language in which to communicate, let alone think.

You want your bottle, don’t ya?

Don’t you, don’t you? Huh?

Here’s your bottle. Umm, good bottle, huh?

She’s happy now she’s got her bottle—yeah.

You’re a happy little girl, now.

Ain’t you? Ain’t you? Yeah!

No more crybaby now.

Recognize those poetic lines? Something like them comprised the first stories you heard. I recorded them years ago, as part of a research program on mothers’ talk to their infants.16  They could be a poem—not an ode to the baby but a lyric, in effect, for the baby, telling her what she needs to believe about herself while at the same time beginning to teach the language through which the rest of her development will occur—as a human, a self, a member of her family and community. Here the baby is learning to attach meanings to her own visceral states. Adults instinctively provide the framework for this fundamental learning. Mother makes baby happy with a bottle of milk, creates a whole lyric around the words “you” and “bottle” and “yeah”, then introduces “happy”, naming the feeling.

A poet described that process better than I. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of mothers “stringing pretty words that make no sense, / and kissing full sense into empty words.”17  Such story-telling (sometimes poetic) happens before children even understand language—and plays a big part in their coming to understand it. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”18

In all cultures, as far as we know, no doubt from time immemorial, story-telling plays a crucial role in transforming babies into members of the human family. From infancy—before they have language or any concepts of self, kinship, culture, etc.— little children have parents and other adults who instinctively, constantly, tell stories about them, to them.

Isn’t this the essential role writers perform for readers? We succeed or fail to the extent we capture readers and draw them in emotionally, to participate vicariously in a story. To the extent we trigger identification with (or alienation from) characters, the reader/listener can’t help re-experiencing unconscious childlike patterns of self-definition, which are the fundamental learning process of homo sapiens.

Which of these choices does the best job of involving your reader vicariously in your protagonist’s life?

         Tell about an idea, attitude, or feeling without showing it.

         Show what a disembodied narrator sees

         Show what your character sees

         Tell how the character feels

         Show, imply, ask how the character feels

         Tell or show how the character acts on something—picks it up, throws it, trips over it

I hope we’ve agreed by now that the choices at the bottom of the hierarchy work best, and that those at the top, though also part of literature, entail secondary processes and engage the reader’s mind at a more intellectual distance. But notice how this hierarchy from bottom to top, lower brain to higher, parallels the sequence of children’s cognitive development. The modes of engagement with a text that are most likely to draw a reader personally and emotionally close to a protagonist are those modes in which he first apprehended the world, before adding all the layers of adult intelligence. In fact, nearly all writing for very young children is at what developmental psychologists call the sensory-motor level; never at those highest, later-developed stages. And what I’ve said here is that adult poetry and fiction also continue to “grab” readers through the same devices, engaging the lowest level of cognition: direct perception through vicarious participation in a scene, primary process as opposed to conscious thought.

In early summer there are plenty of things for a child to eat and drink and suck and chew. Dandelion stems are full of milk, clover heads are loaded with nectar, ... everywhere you look is life; even the little ball of spit on the weed stalk, if you pull it apart, has a green worm inside it. And on the under side of the leaf of the potato vine are the bright orange eggs of the potato bug.19

Although Charlotte’s Web isn’t for the youngest children, it addresses older readers in a way to evoke childhood feelings even in a grandfather.

Suspension of Belief

Children have no problem believing in stories. Their difficulty is just the opposite: disconnecting, suspending their belief. That’s why they’re terrorized by certain stories, begging us not to tell them again. But as they get older, stories written for them introduce more ambiguity, uncertainty about events, outcomes, implications—leaving the reader in thought. By the mental age of fourteen or fifteen, they’re able to identify broadly with characters and their concerns, quests, successes/failures—always knowing it’s fiction. They read historical and biographical narratives without confusing them with their own world. They can focus consciously on how characters differ from them, along with similarities and continuities, while at another level believing in the story.

Finally, in its advanced (educated) stages, literature refers to and often depends upon a reader’s knowledge of canon, and upon symbolism as an end in itself. At those levels, identification with the characters and events of a story is much more detached. It’s easy to engage the adult reader’s secondary process of identification even with stories that are remote from his world.  Yet the primary process “stuff” still goes on, alongside the consciously observing mature critic. Now, as a sophisticated reader, I’ll span time, space, culture, gender, age, sexual identity, faith—yet there is a tradeoff for that intelligence: My self is no longer so susceptible to being changed by the tale I’m absorbed in, as when I was five, ten, or even twenty. We call the absorbing tales we read as adults, “escape”. Those we used to read as children, and those told to us about ourselves in the predawn of our mental/linguistic capacity, were the opposite of escape. Those strings of pretty sound were the social life that made us who we are.

In short, identification and empathy come before intellect. All the stories we have heard, and read, and written, and all those we have yet to write, are primarily about parts of ourselves. With maturity and mental health comes the ability to separate ourselves from those characters and connect with them at the same time.

*     In The Writer's Chronicle, February 2008. This essay was my graduate lecture in the Bennington MFA program.

1.     Kenneth Kaye, Ph.D., M.F.A. is a developmental psychologist and family therapist and a member of Bennington College’s June 2006 M.F.A. graduating class (fiction).  His short stories have appeared in Literary Potpourri, GlimmerTrain, and a collection, Birds of Evanston (2007).

2.     Douglas Bauer, The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft. University of Michigan Press, 2000.












3.     John Updike “Elsie by Starlight,” New Yorker  July 5, 2004



































































































4.     John Cheever. “The Cure.” The New Yorker, July 5, 1952. In The Stories of John Cheever. Knopf, 1978.




















































5.     John Cheever, “The Jewels of the Cabots.” Originally published in Playboy, 1973. In The Stories of John Cheever. Knopf, 1978.     








































































6.     Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.














7.     ibid


















8.     Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. London: Egerton, 1814.























9.     Sharon Olds, “Letter to My Father from 40,000 Feet.” In The Father. Knopf, 1992.




















10. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. Scribner’s, 1926
















11. Truman Capote, “A Tree of Night.” 1945. In The Complete Stories of Truman Capote. Random House, 2004.








12. ibid








13. ibid










14.  John Cheever. “The Chimera”. The New Yorker, July 1, 1961. In The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978.

















15. Feodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Jessie Coulson. New York: Norton, 1964.  Ellipses in the original.





















16. Kenneth Kaye,  The Mental and Social Life of Babies. University of Chicago Press, 1982.








17. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. London: J. Miller, 1864.



18. T.S. Eliot, “On Dante.” In Selected Essays. Boston: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.





































19. E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web. Harper & Row, 1952.