Psychic Distance

Lately, my students and I are preoccupied with psychic (or narrative) distance, or how close the reader feels to a story. In close psychic distance, the reader stands next to the characters, perhaps even sitting in their laps. Long psychic distance puts the reader across the street, or in a hot air balloon overhead, or looking down from heaven.

John Gardner said in The Art of Fiction, “In good fiction, shifts in psychic distance are carefully controlled.” Writers often interpret that to mean the change should be imperceptible.

And sure, that works. In her story “Snowfall,” Deesha Philyaw uses first-person plural to plunk her readers as close to her characters Arletha and Rhonda as possible— or so you think.

“We, who apparently are built for everything, are simply not built for this. No gloves exist that keep our hands from freezing as we move snow and ice from one spot to another and from the car windshield. And no, the physical activity does not warm us up. It makes usresentful.”

Later, Philyaw uses second person to pull the reader even closer:

“In the South, the weather does not hurt you down to your bones or force you to wake up a half an hour early to remedy what has been done to your steps, your sidewalk, your driveway and your car, as you slept.”

The tightening psychic distance in “Snowfall” is a tractor beam—invisible and inescapable.

But you can be equally effective when your reader is acutely aware of the change.

In his film Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock starts viewers medium-close to Richard, who may or may not have murdered his ex-wife. The audience is close enough to suspect him, but not enough to be sure.

Then, another character kills someone, and we’re in the room where it happens.

The film then alternates between Richard and the real killer, Hitchcock keeping his audience uncomfortably close to the murderer. We’re walking right alongside him as he runs into his former co-worker Babs, as they stroll through London, as he invites Babs to see his apartment. At this point, the audience is trying to use its close psychic distance to psychically communicate STAY OUT OF THE APARTMENT, BABS!

Spoiler: Babs goes into the apartment.

And then, famously, the camera leaves.

It backs away from the closed door, down three flights of a winding, silent stairwell, onto the sidewalk, and across the street, people and cars filling the space between the audience and the building. We’re as far from that apartment as we can get without a rocket.

I saw Frenzy in a crowded theater, and when that camera started gliding backward, the once-quiet audience started shouting, “GobackgobackGOBACK!”

Different stories, different styles, different distances, but one thing’s the same. When Philyaw and Hitchcock shift the psychic distance, the story intensifies.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty


For your travels, I wish you well with the places you rent through Airbnb and such. Myself, I prefer hotels.

The way you leave your life behind, allowing others to cook and clean and point you in the right direction. Watching a TV that may take you to strange channels, especially overseas. Working out the labyrinthine layout of the place. Oh, yes, room service.

Most of all, hanging out among a collection of random strangers that could be anyone from an insurance salesperson to a serial killer, without you knowing which is which. Sometimes you chat with them, sometimes you just watch and wonder.

As the Gotham tagline says: Stories. Everywhere.

Three of my favorite hotels:

The Menger Hotel – San Antonio, Texas, next to the Alamo. (It’s in the pic.) You feel the complicated spirit of the Old West in these walls. Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders for the Spanish-American War here and they say his ghost still lingers at the bar.

Hotel Kempinski – Geneva, Switzerland, right on Lake Geneva in view of the Jet d’Eau. In the elevator, I was alone with a man unimaginably magnificent: a pilot for Egypt Air, tall and straight as an airplane with jet-black hair and mustache and the face of an eagle.

Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge – Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa. They offer game drives at dawn and dusk where you see lions and impalas and the like. You can also follow an underground tunnel into a “hide” to glimpse the animals without them knowing you’re around.

My life isn’t so grand as these places would lead you to believe, though I have stayed at each. I’m also drawn to the humbler places, even a low-slung motel along a strip of highway.

Hotels light up my imagination. I’m not alone; many great tales take place in these habitats:

The Shining – Stephen King’s horror novel and itsoffshoots,set at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. REDRUM!

Schitt’s Creek – The TV series (created by Daniel and Eugene Levy) about a fallen-from-grace family forced to live in a run-down motel in rural Canada.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles’s novel about a Russian aristocrat sentenced to spend his life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, forbidden to ever set foot outside.

“Hotel California” – A song by The Eagles about a metaphoric hotel that’s seductive for a while; though you can check out, you can never leave.

What is it that excites your imagination, causing you to buzz with delight or intrigue or trepidation? There must be a handful of things that do the trick for you. Find those things and make them your muses.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

Mapping Landmarks

Last week Gothamist managed to get hold of a hand-drawn map of the interior of Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, created by the student protesters who were occupying it.

It marked off an area for smoking, and its legend noted where you could find a ladder, water fountains or “tons of books.”

Of course it immediately became a Rorschach test for how people feel about the campus protests dominating the news of late—how someone interprets the symbols and legends likely reveals more about them than about the map or mapmakers themselves.

Which is what delights me about this map, and all maps really. They’re never, ever solely about geography.

“The power of maps to fire imagination is well known,” novelist Michael Chabon wrote in his essay collection Maps and Legends. “And there is no map so seductive as the one marked…by the romantic blank of unexplored territory.”  

And is there a more fertile or fascinating unexplored territory than a writer’s subconscious? I doubt it.

Coincidentally, this spring, I’ve been asking my Gotham students to do some mapmaking of their own—with thrilling, surprising results. I think that’s because sketching a map taps three big wells:

  • Drawing something, anything, coaxes thoughts and ideas to burble up from your mind’s depths into your imagination, and to emerge on paper, where they can make themselves useful.
  • Sketching out a place in your story —an imaginary country, a ghost town, your childhood bedroom — helps you find the borders of the place, and also, your story. You’ll identify, too, the borders of those “romantic blanks of unexplored territory” you may not yet know exist. Of course, once you know where a border lies, you can cross it, and explore.
  • Maps require symbols and legends, designating landmarks, locations of high value. Desert maps take pains to mark the points where a traveler would find water; ghost tour maps mark the sites places where apparitions have visited, as well as cemeteries and burial grounds. Locating and naming landmarks forces writers to identify what’s valuable in a story; choosing the symbols and creating the legend to explain them encourages you to explore why those places deserve to be landmarks, and what they mean.

Once you’ve mapped a place, you cannot help but start to think about the people who’ve moved through it — the locals, the visitors, the settlers, the plunderers, the commuters, the lost. The characters of your story, in other words. They come to you.

Try it yourself: Sketch out a map of a place in your current WIP. See what borders you add, which ones mark the undiscovered lands. Then, add symbols for only the landmarks that are meaningful to the protagonist. Write a scene at one of those landmarks.

See what adventures await you.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty