Writing, Baseball, and Objective Correlative
I usually find writing prompts futile. (This is likely rooted in some residual frustration with a few lazy English instructors who relied too heavily on “What does your character wear to bed?” Cosmo-esque “character-development surveys.”)
This time, however, the exercise was worthwhile, not because it achieved what it intended, but because it inspired this rumination. Hurrah for fringe benefits.
What sits on the mantel of your protagonist’s home?
This, I imagine, is an inorganic way to attempt to accomplish two things:
1. Help focus the development of your character through defining a concrete detail about her life. This detail could reveal something about:
a. Her current turmoil (i.e.: The gun her newest ex-husband gave her just before disappearing last week sits on the mantel inside a decorative cigar box.)
b. Some backstory element relevant to the live action (A chipped candy dish filled with seashells she collected as a girl sits on the mantel, and after twelve years in landlocked Kansas, she finds herself eyeing them more often.)
c. Her hopes for the future (On the mantel in her library, among the thick, esoteric texts she devoured for her PhD, sit books by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, ripe and ready for a child to enjoy someday, should that someday ever arrive.)
2. Discover an objective correlative to employ throughout your work.
T. S. Eliot popularized the phrase in his 1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” explaining:
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
I disagree that it’s the only way, but it certainly is a good one worth exploring further.
When employed expertly, the objective correlative (in the form of symbolic objects or a series of events) contributes far beyond SCENE development or the creation of MOOD, as it can also reveal otherwise unknown or misunderstood insights into the character/story. In this instance, Writer is god, wielding a series of deliberate details to achieve a desired outcome.
Good writers do this so well you’re unaware of their employment.
Poor writers hit you over the head with clichéd objective correlative equations: “Get it? Stormy clouds + pile of crumpled tissues + wilting flowers + cold coffee + Coldplay on repeat = the protagonist is having a bad day and I didn’t even have to come right out and tell you!”
So what we’re really talking about here are emotional algebraic equations made of particular objects, all of which possess some degree of both a universal and personal charge. What do I mean by this? And how does it relate to baseball? I’m getting to it. I promise.
Prop masters, set designers, and interior decorators are fluent at tapping into an object’s “charge,” and, since writers are creators of worlds, too, I think we should work to become better at it. On the most simple linguistic level, it refers to denotation VS. connotation, in that every object possesses some (mostly) universal charge, while its deeper meaning varies person-to-person, allowing limitless opportunities for irony, juxtaposition, and surprise in our work.
I’d argue that the most sophisticated/successful/interesting objective correlatives are specific and original to the character and the world in which she plays. While these isolated symbols and equations work to evoke a particular emotional response, they also create a type of intimacy with the reader. For instance, other characters in the scene may not understand why Harry, a prudish accountant, keeps a photograph of a ’50s pin-up in his wallet, but we do because of the heart-wrenching anecdote provided earlier. And when Harry’s wallet is stolen, we share in his relief that while his driver’s license, three credit cards, and six hundred in cash were taken, the pickpocket left the dog-eared photo.
One of my characters, Claire McCoy, refuses to wear a watch. She doesn’t like time or, more accurately, how quickly it seems to be passing her by, and she doesn’t value punctuality in the least. Having properly set this up, when she’s given a watch as compensation for a task she’d rather not do in the first place, the reader senses her discomfort with the tick, tick, tick of its inner workings, further revealing her inner workings.
To most people, a worn photo of a ’50s pin-up is not priceless, nor is a watch tormenting, but it is to Harry, and it is to Claire, and because we understand this, we feel with them.
Other times, a strong objective correlative references a universally charged object, but in a fresh way. And this is where baseball comes in for me.
Because the protagonist I’m currently developing doesn’t really have a home, at least not in the traditional sense, when presented with the “What’s on the mantel?” writing prompt, I thought about my own home, because while I love writing, I quite like home décor.
While my home features several items that a set designer or prop master or interior decorator may call a “charged object” (i.e. a retro rotary phone, a glowing green banker’s lamp, a collection of witchy glass bottles), one that attracts particular interest among our guests are all of the baseballs incorporated into our homescape. This hadn’t occurred to me until somewhat recently when a visiting pal walked through playing “Eye Spy” and located a worn baseball or baseball-themed item in every room. (Note: We live in a small Victorian house. It didn’t take her very long.)
“Over there you have them piled in a vase, like Martha Stewart does with her lemons. And there, by the fireplace is another huddle of them, and in your office, on your bookshelf….”
The Lopez Indians and The Cleland Tigers take the field on our groom’s cake.
So what does this mean? How are the baseballs in my house “charged” to me? If my house were a fictional setting, what would this incessant inclusion of baseballs say about the protagonist who lived among them? Let’s speculate:
Baseball’s universal charge:
Americana, summertime, childhood, nostalgia, athleticism, heroes, fun, competition….
Baseball’s personal charge:
Grounding, earthy, textured, symmetrical, harmoniously colored (we have creams and reds throughout our home), my particular summertime, my particular childhood, my personal nostalgia….
A favorite showcase at Fenway (a favorite park).
Really thinking on it now, I have to admit that the baseball is one of man’s most perfect simple creations. You want to throw it when it finds a home in your hand. When it’s tossed your way, you want to bat it and gaze at its flight. I like to think that the creation of the game was inevitable — that if you found me on some strange island and handed me a baseball I’d look at my fellow dwellers and say,
“Someone grab a log. I want to see how far I can hit this thing.”
Then, after a few whacks at it, we’d decide some people should be responsible for retrieving it. And the game would begin, a natural inevitability granting joy through play. What makes me so LOFTY and WHIMSICAL about a baseball?
This particular object’s charge is rooted in my particular experiences with it, and around it, and because of it.
So this charged object thing, this objective correlative thing, it can be beautiful, can’t it? Specific anecdotes and tangible objects can help to define us, as they reveal where we’ve come from, what we fear, what we treasure, and where we hope we’re headed. And once we unlock this relationship between “physical thing” and “personal experience” and how it can encapsulate a person’s core qualities, the sooner we can wield this knowledge to achieve a desired outcome.
In this way, we can think of objective correlatives as ACCESS POINTS, the purposeful intersection of a concrete item and an emotion. So, if you haven’t already, add this to your writer toolbox, and use it wisely, for its power is great.
Now that that’s been addressed, I’m going to close with the TOP TEN ways my interest in BASEBALL has informed my WRITING – what similarities I see, and what can be learned from my favorite pastime and applied to my favorite pursuit.
1. Baseball players and writers both have slumps. (We signed up for it. Learn to weather the storms.)
2. Recruitment is a crapshoot. (Any MLB scout or literary agent/editor/publisher/film producer will tell you that finding the next great talent or bestseller or blockbuster is not a science. If you’re batting .600 it doesn’t mean you will once you make it to the show, and if your work has undeniable literary merit it doesn’t guarantee the potential readers/viewers will appreciate it.)
3. Timing is everything.
4. Your triumphs and failures are often quite public.
5. Writerly muscles and athletic muscles must be flexed regularly to stay in shape. (Spending too much time away from the field or the page is dangerous.)
6. In both endeavors, you must learn to trust your instincts.
7. If you worked hard, you look worse at the end of the day.
8. People who don’t appreciate baseball and/or what you write will find it incredibly BORING.
9. You need discipline. (Especially during what feels like the “off season” — winter/before inspiration strikes.)
10. They’re both games for dreamers.