Friday, 14 August 2009

Getting into S 'n' N


A few minutes ago Jess phoned to ask me to collect her from an eye test. Could I also pick up her glasses in case they haven’t given her any new contact lenses by then?

A simple enough job you’d think. I shouldn’t be able to cock that one up. Then, as I searched the bedroom, I realised I had no idea what her current pair looks like. It’s me that needs my eyes tested. I found some that were vaguely familiar: rectangular lenses and a walnut coloured frame (see, I can describe them when they are sitting on the desk). I asked, rather sheepishly, if those were the ones. They were: success. In a minute I’ll stop writing to you, jump in the car and whiz into Ealing to deliver them. I’ll shake off the faint dusting of embarrassment at not being able to recognise an object I see every week, an object that is habitually located directly in front of a pair of eyes I find irresistibly attractive.

Being this unobservant is no help to a writer. In Myers-Briggs personality language I’m strongly N rather than S. I don’t think about what’s actually out there in the shouting, stinking, strokable, savoury, seeable world: the information available to my senses. If you are N, the nitty-gritty of colours and shapes, which jacket someone is wearing, the type of car they drive, all bore you. You’d make a hopeless police witness. Proof reading makes your eyes sweat. Instead, you think about the stuff cavorting inside your head: possibilities and ideas, the inner meaning of things rather than their physical appearance.

One simple test to find out if someone is N or S is to show them a painting and get them to describe it. Froggy, for example, the tree-frog I bought from a local artist in Costa Rica. The painting on my office wall. I show it to you for a minute then take it away. Now tell me what you saw.

If you are S, you will tell me that it’s a painting of a frog perched at the tips of two leaves or stalks. Unusually, the leaves are bright red and so are the frogs eyes. Its legs are blue and the background is completely black. The eyes are jutting from the extreme sides of the face. The frog has three toes to each of its legs in a sort of orangey colour. The hind legs are blue but its front legs are green, which makes them look like arms. The face is the same pale green. You might mention that the artist used pastels.

If you are N, you won’t notice any of that stuff, apart from possibly the scarlet eyes. You’ll say, the frog looks as if he’s about to jump out of the painting straight into the room. You’ll say that his eyes bulge in a slightly ominous way but his wide wide mouth gives him a more friendly look. You’ll admit that you quite like the picture but might find it a bit disconcerting to have that beady-eyed frog watching you while you work.

I’m biased and probably make the N preference sound more exciting than the mundane thinking of the S. But I’ve often been struck by how we need both modes, as writers.

N is how you dream up an idea for a story. How you link your narrative to some big bold themes, to the universal human condition that the reader relates to. It’s how you let the imagination run wild and think up whole new worlds or adventures beyond your own experience, letting the mind fly into new realms.

S is how you convey all that. The show not tell. The pinpoint description and vivid detail that brings it all to life in the imagination of the reader. Without that precision and concrete language it all becomes vague and is lost somewhere between your fertile pen and the page.

A psychologist friend who knows her Myers-Briggs commented on this when she read one of my stories, saying she was surprised by all the detailed sensory data, the sights and sounds I’d described. She didn’t know how laborious that was for me; I even found it difficult to do the S description of Froggy who, like that pair of glasses, I see almost every day. I couldn’t have written it without the painting in front of me.

Recently on a writing forum I saw a thread where people posted their MBTI types. Of thirteen writers who responded to the thread, 11 were N rather than S. Also, 11 were F rather than T (perhaps I’ll blog about that one later). The other two scales were fairly evenly split.

So I’m not the only one. I wonder if you have to force yourself to notice what's going on in the real world, too. I’d love to think more about this, but, aarrghh, I’ve just noticed I’m late to pick up Jess.

18 comments:

Susannah Rickards said...

Fascinating Rod. Where's the link to the test?

I'm S, without a doubt. Your description of the frog made me laugh - that's exactly how I'd go about it. Pragmatic and obvious. But if S's keep looking, there's usually something new in there, and it leads into the N of the frog's motive eventually.

The S was drummed in during acting training. We were taught to see and memorise minute detail. We were always being given an acting exercise of picking a stranger, at a bus stop, say, and studying them covertly so you recall them to the cops in minute detail. I guess it's to counteract the intuitive pull towards the inner motive. Need to get the outer into the balance so that it can convey the inner clearly.

What you say about not registering the familiar is so true. I sometimes leave the house and get a moment's panic that I don't remember what Simon was wearing when we said goodbye. It's irrational, but I feel I should know, should have noticed what was so close.

Off to google the MB test, though I'm sure I've done it before without realising what the S and N stood for.

Great post.

Susannah Rickards said...

Fascinating Rod. Where's the link to the test?

I'm S, without a doubt. Your description of the frog made me laugh - that's exactly how I'd go about it. Pragmatic and obvious. But if S's keep looking, there's usually something new in there, and it leads into the N of the frog's motive eventually.

The S was drummed in during acting training. We were taught to see and memorise minute detail. We were always being given an acting exercise of picking a stranger, at a bus stop, say, and studying them covertly so you recall them to the cops in minute detail. I guess it's to counteract the intuitive pull towards the inner motive. Need to get the outer into the balance so that it can convey the inner clearly.

What you say about not registering the familiar is so true. I sometimes leave the house and get a moment's panic that I don't remember what Simon was wearing when we said goodbye. It's irrational, but I feel I should know, should have noticed what was so close.

Off to google the MB test, though I'm sure I've done it before without realising what the S and N stood for.

Great post.

Julie P said...

I think I'm somewhere in the middle, Rod. I notice a lot of the deep details but miss some of them.I woyldn't make a good police witness because if I saw your frog picture for a few seconds I wouldn't be able to recount what I saw in a reliable manner. I'd probably embellish it somewhat - I have a vivid imagination!!

Julie

CarolineG said...

That really is amazing because I am strongly N and have always felt that it's a bit of a failing. I too have to sweat over physical description in my writing. And as a reader, nothing is more likely to turn me off than too MUCH detail. Archetectural descriptions are my biggest bugbear...I want to shout 'I don't CARE what you say the house looks like because I already have a perfectly good image in my head!' Very interesting post, Rod.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Brilliant post and a subject I really must look into. Rod, do you think its my parents fault for calling me Fionnuala? Giving me two 'n's to cope with in life?!
Seriously, though I suspect I'm naturally N, I try hard at the S. I'm with Caroline and somehow had always seen this as a failing but maybe it is nature, as like her, I personally dislike overly descriptive writing.

Susannah Rickards said...

Sorry for posting twice, accidentally. Did the test and was N, which was a surprise.

Caroline G - never read my work. I love architectural descriptions of houses. They give a real flavour of a neighbourhood, especially in novels set in other countries. I love all those sleuth novels where the PD drives up and comments on the look of the neighbourhood, all those poetic works, cinderblocks, faschias. Manna.

Now, MUST stop procrastinating and get on with work.

Roderic Vincent said...

Sod the test, it sounds to me like you are a confirmed S for Susannah. The idea of remembering what someone was wearing when they left the house is completely beyond my ability. But maybe that's also because I'm an M.

And Caroline, I resonate strongly with your feeling that being N is a failing. I read all those detailed descriptions of architecture with envy and awe as well as boredom.

Geraldine Ryan said...

I always remember what people are wearing but that's because I'm clothes obsessed. But I only know about four makes of cars. Jill Dawson, on a course I went on she taught, did a writing exercise to find out which type we were though she didn't identify them in the terms Rod does.

She asked us to write two descriptions - one from memory of a place we knew well at a particular time of day and another by actually physically going to place in the building where we were and just describing it in detail, prosaically. The idea was to see which we found easiest.

She admitted that she is fiercely N and hates writing descriptions, but knows the value of them for the reasons Susannah brings up. Her way round it is to move in on one detail of a larger whole - so the petal of a flower; the window of a house etc.

I'm terrible at description too and all my stories have an interior setting. Characters only ever venture outdoors to buy supplies!

CarolineG said...

Susanna...cinderblocks? Faschia?
[Shudder]

CarolineG said...

Oops sorry...shuddering so much, I missed off an 'h'!

Derek said...

That's a brilliant notion - the Mysers-Briggs appraoch to writing! It could easily be a niche 'how-to' book. I'm an ENTJ and had never thought about it in relation to my writing. It might explain why, in my novels, my approach to emotional sensitivity is often to introduce humour.

Susannah Rickards said...

"envy and awe as well as boredom." LOL

Why envy writing that bores you?

Susannah Rickards said...

meant to ask - what do all the other letters stand for? What is an F or a J?

Gillian McDade said...

This is really fascinating, Rod! I think I'm in-between. Off to read more about this!

Derek said...

http://www.teamtechnology.co.uk/myers-briggs/myers-briggs.htm for an overview of Myers-Briggs.

Roderic Vincent said...

The answer, Susannah, is that I'm a contorted mess of inter contradictions. I envy that type of writing because it seems the right way to do it, even though I don't enjoy reading that stuff.

Roderic Vincent said...

Have a great weekend, everybody. Jess is away, so I'm off to Brighton for some summer fun.

Rosyb said...

loved this. I never notice clothes but then I am very uninterested in clothes - particularly on other people. I can tell you nothing about bags and shoes either. But I can describe facial expressions in extraordinary detail. And I always notice subtexts...But I do visually notice faces and recognise faces no matter what context they are put in. Whether I can match em up to the names is another matter entirely...