The Doors of Perception
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Payne’s gray, cold gray, pewter, silver, warm gray.
Bronze, brown ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, copper, gold ochre, orange ochre, modern brown, raw sienna, raw umber, stil de grain brown, transparent oxide brown, Vandyke brown, yellow ochre.
One of these lists is not like the other, right?
A long time ago I read that people can perceive far more shades of brown than shades of grey, and the author hypothesized that this was because for many years of evolution we spent a lot of time staring at the ground and trying to pick up minute differences that might mean something to eat.
Of course one can’t prove the evolutionary story, but it made a lot of sense to me. And those lists of colors back it up. Oh – they’re colors for some brand of oil paints. I don’t remember which, because I looked them up over ten minutes ago. But I did check 5 different brands of paint, and every one of them had a huge difference between the number of grays and the number of browns. The list I just used for an example had more grays than any other brand; most have just Payne’s gray and Someotherkindof gray.
The famous color wheel isn’t the end of the story on color; it’s just the beginning. Our brains take the products of color mixing and interpret them according to what we need. Or what we needed umpteen thousand years ago.
What’s that got to do with writing? Just this: I think that while we were evolving to distinguish yummy brown bugs from inedible brown dirt, we also evolved to distinguish stories from random blather. Life happens and we try to extract meaning from it. That’s why writers need to give their audience a story, with cause and effect, with people behaving like people, with a distinct ending that feels related to the beginning. That’s why I seldom finish books that say, “That happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” and on and on with no clue as to why I should give a damn what happens next or what it might be.
We also try to throw away information that’s not relevant to the story, which is why readers become restive when you spend six pages describing the sunset.
It’s also why, when the First Reader was writing technical papers, I spent hours intoning, “First tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Because he tended to plunge right into the graphs-and-equations part of the story, and it’s really hard to get people to focus on your nifty graph unless they can see how it’s connected to the story you’re telling.
So go forth and create meaning. It’s what will keep them reading.