Swirling in Orbit

After I learned of the death of William Trevor last week, I picked up a volume of his short stories, After Rain, I had on my shelf. He was a master of intimate, pinpoint details that evoke so much about a life in a limited number of pages. His ability to extrapolate from a central concept is unique, but the principles of the practice can be followed by anyone.

Let’s take a concept similar to the blindness he uses in “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: deafness. If you were to write about a character who suffers from a loss of hearing, what qualities would that character possess? You can, of course, pick stone deafness, but that seems overly restrictive. There are plenty of gradations along the way, as many older people can attest.

One question to ask is: how does deafness affect a character socially? You can imagine that he does a lot of pretending he heard, but he is really looking at others for cues for when, say, to laugh. Maybe he prefers solitude, i.e., the absence of having to try to hear. He might be drawn to reading, because that is a form of communication he can enjoy without a struggle.

The condition could determine the friends she chooses. She can hear people with loud voices, while she might despise people who mumble. Her older sister probably developed a loud voice in order to talk to her deaf sibling. And how about a father who once spoke loudly, but with the strain of old age speaks in soft tones? How annoying is that for her? She can’t even hear her own dad.

What are the conditions under which a deaf person feels uncomfortable? You can imagine a dinner table at which others wax more wittily as each new round of wine is served. But why is the deaf one silent? It’s because he can’t hear voices over the sounds of his chewing food. Or consider what happens when he buys a hearing aid. Put him at a party, where the aid picks up the voice of some loud s.o.b. nearby that he’s not talking to. Is he likely to pigeonhole someone in the hallway to the bathroom, where it is quieter?

You see, Trevor’s multifaceted brilliance stemmed in part from sitting back and considering what attributes would best cohere around a central core. If you follow the principle that we all try to hide our deficits, to fit in with some group, then all of the constellation of personality choices revolve around issues the reader will understand.

Exercise: A person who is born with a hearing loss will likely have her entire personality shaped by her deficit. How does she compensate in order to be regarded as normal? Is she overly aggressive with others, trying too hard to impress? Does she dress more sharply, hiding the drawback she feels inside?

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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