Icelandic sagas and the art of detachment

Previously, Alice talked about how people find patterns in the sparsest of details. But that was about visual perception. What does it have to do with writing?

To begin with, people have a tendency to over-explain and to over-share.

Examples of the former: Alice drinks a glass of water, and in response to her friend’s look, explains, “I was thirsty.” Alice buys a new dress, and tells the cashier, “I’m treating myself. Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself, you know?” Alice goes for a walk by herself, and later says to her friend, “I just want to be by myself sometimes.”

Examples of the latter: all of social media. Such as this blog.

We have a deep-seated need to let everybody around us know. We’re constantly telling each other what we’re thinking, feeling, or doing.

This bleeds into writing, too. We want to get the whole beautiful cacophony in our heads onto the page, and from there into the head of our reader. So we describe our characters, their thoughts, delve into their motivations, paint out the milieu, include bits of world-building, chart the history of our created world, the history of our characters, their childhood woes, their emotions, what they see, feel, all the sensations, sounds, smells, all the goddamn five senses, words, words, words.

Wait! Why do we do this, when we know that people find patterns in the sparsest of details?

Alice supposes we get too stuck up with our ego. We forget the reader. We just want to get it all out, so that people can see what a wonderfully beautiful inner world we have. However, the reader has a beautiful inner world like that, too. That is the only reason why any text works at all.

So, trust the reader. If you don’t, you’ll suffocate their imagination with verbiage.

Alice thinks the Icelandic family sagas illustrate this point nicely. They may not be everybody’s medicine, but what is? Not my advice, and not anything. But anyway!

The style of the sagas is amazingly detached. We don’t get much in the way of description. The cast of characters is diverse, but the sagas are sparing on character details, outward or inward. In addition, and more importantly, the sagas pass no judgement. Stuff happens. The narration makes few comments on it. What happens is often neither good nor evil, neither foreboding nor common, neither awesome nor humdrum. What happens simply happens.

Njál and his household is burned. Everybody dies. The narration asks for no sympathy. Kári begins his long revenge. The narration neither condemns nor exalts him. Grettir spends eighteen  years as an outlaw, and dies just before he would have been pardoned. For the entirety of the saga, there is no wallowing in misery for him. We just see what goes on.

And it’s magnificent.

The gaps in this kind of storytelling are food for human imagination. Emptiness, not richness, activates the mind.

By biting their tongue, the writer may leave such gaps in their work. By slaughtering their chattering ego, they may write just enough to activate the imagination of their reader. No more.

This is the art of detachment. You, the writer, are not important. So shut up and paint your story with as few brushstrokes as possible. Your reader’s imagination – where the magic really happens – takes care of the rest.


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