Thursday, January 2, 2014

Verisimilitude: Artistic Voyeurism

A significant characteristic of literature is its quality of truth, known as verisimilitude, a trait writers cultivate by reading widely and by observing closely people, places, and things. In fact, writers and artists in general are voyeurs who evaluate and synthesize the human experience for our edification.

A great writing challenge is to transfer your voyeurism onto the page, and I have tried to accept my own challenge with the following first draft that may or may not find its way into an essay or work of fiction.

No modern waiting room is complete without a big-screen TV, most often tuned to a home, garden, or food network as these are suitably nonpartisan and gender neutral. Real men can watch real men surprise do-it-yourself-ers with manpower, expertise, and efficient power tools in order to transform kitchens, baths, and backyards into works of art. If rooms are not being made over into man caves by and for men, then women are demonstrating their thoughtfulness by designing spaces for both genders.

But on our first visit to the waiting room of a brand new doctor, we were surprised to find ESPN on screen, a channel more common in restaurants and bars, not medical office buildings. Neither my husband nor I is a sports fanatic, and we tend to think of waiting rooms as another great opportunity to read so I brought my Kindle to life and my husband began reading a magazine. The couple near us was not at all content, however.

“I like Incognito” insinuated itself into my novel, and with those words, she had my attention. How could anyone 'like' a guy with a record of bullying, I wondered while she turned her face to her husband at an angle that let me see her disdain as she hissed, lips pursed, “I hate this show.”

Soon, she was standing, smoothing her silk jacket belted tightly around her waist to draw attention to her shape, still a good one many, many years past her youth. She crossed to the receptionist’s low desk and asked for the remote to change the channel, but on the day after Christmas, the staff on hand was skeletal, and this particular stand-in for the regular receptionist had no key to access the drawer where the remote was safely locked away from casual theft and other unimaginable abuses.

“I’m sorry,” said the substitute receptionist. “I don’t have a key to the drawer where the remote’s kept.”

“Who has the key?” she demanded, drawing herself a little more upright, the spine stiffer, regal.

“The girl who sits here most days.”

“And where is she?” Her vowels elongating as a grand inquisitor pinning the suspect to the truth.

“Well, she’s off today.”

“We can’t watch this program. It’s offensive.” With these, she cut off the interrogation, turned and cut her eyes toward me, sharing that time-tested eye roll, raised eyebrow, and pursed lips to say, “Really!” in a nonverbal huff.

The receptionist went back to her roster and files, but I stopped to study the program. Two Black American anchors talked to each other across a split screen over film footage of memorable moments in sports from 2013. Below crawled snippets of other stories and updates, all sports related. I couldn’t find anything objectionable, but I don’t follow sports so perhaps I missed the point completely.

“This is intolerable!” soon bubbled out of her unbidden, urging the receptionist to offer what the rest of us knew.

“You an still change the channel with the buttons on the side.”

“Really. Then please do,” she commanded.

The receptionist, her face a blank canvas—much to her credit—joined us in the waiting room and took up the chore of pushing the button. The woman, hands on her hips, watched the screen images flicker by.

“Can’t you find a home show? Gardening? How about cable 54?”

“This one only has channels up to 40.”

The receptionist started over at the lower numbers and soon Today appeared, recognizable by the reliable Matt Lauer of Baywatch beauty fame—certainly not hard news—and this mollified the woman. She sighed, “This will do.”

The receptionist hurried back behind her low desk; the lady returned to her seat. She patted her husband’s hand as if she had just secured his final wish and appealed to the room, “Really that morning program on ESPN is intolerable.”

I wanted to say, “Why don’t you move to a different seat away from the television” or “why don’t you read” or “who are you to demand the station serve your needs and no one else’s” or “have you considered that a TV program is trivial” but I said nothing. I just vowed to remember this gal and her self-absorption. She’s really more us than we’d like to believe.

Reading Challenge:

Read a person in a moment that surprises you.

Writing Challenge:

Record your impressions as accurately as possible. Strive for verisimilitude. The draft may never find its way into something you write, but its kernel just might.