Making Strange


Strange, isn’t it? Stranger still if I tell you that this is a hedge in a village square in a mountain town in Costa Rica. Behind this hedge (photo: Marie-Louise Gay) lies the village church. A local hedge artist, some time ago, decided that what his town needed was a few creatures like this. Who could refuse?

The idea of defamiliarization, or “making strange,” is a popular one among writers, though not everyone uses this term. Certainly not my spell-checker that doesn’t consider “defamiliarization” a word. What it means, simply, is that in our writing, through our descriptions, we make what we thought was familiar into something new and strange and striking. I thought about this recently because I’m reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. A more domestic book would be hard to imagine. The heroine is Miss E (her classroom name), a third-grade teacher. There is hardly a scene that does not take place in a domestic space: her apartment, her classroom, the playground. Everything is achingly familiar. And yet…

Yet she moves into one of her pupil’s mother’s art studio and begins creating art herself. She makes a tiny room no bigger than a shoebox in which she places a doll of Emily Dickinson, the famous poet-recluse. She becomes inordinately attached to the pupil’s mother, ends up babysitting him. We know that this is going to turn out very badly…

From the overfamiliar, Messud makes something strange and unfamiliar through a process of intensification and pushing the process of identification to its logical extreme. There are as many ways of “making strange” as there are writers. One way I used at the start of my novel-writing (Electrical Storms, 1988) was to have a young character take literally the euphemistic expressions used by his parents. More recently (Midway, 2010), I returned to that phenomenon, quite frequent among children, and had the adult character remember his young self, back when his mother expressed her fear of burglars. He decided that a burglar, a very strange-sounding word, referred to the old jackets that lived at the back of the closet in the front hall; at night, these jackets emerged to wreak some sort of mischief. They had to be vanquished somehow. He would do it, and win his mother’s love…

For me, rendering the familiar unfamiliar has nothing to do with science-fiction scenarios, where monsters and special powers abound. Quite the obvious. We are working with the everyday, and making it say new things for us, and for our readers.


4 thoughts on “Making Strange

  1. Often when the children were young and we would talk about downtown the word skyscrapers would come into the conversation. One day on the way downtown my daughter asked me what skyscrapers are. I told her they are very tall buildings and asked her why. She thought that sky scrapers were a type of cloud, because on that day the clouds were very thin and seemed to be scraping the sky.

  2. I’ve often thought that that’s how writing begins: seeing things behind words, playing with the physical images they conjur up, a kind of attentiveness to all that. And being attentive to the people who say those things. For me, the radio broadcasts of baseball games were a source of all kinds of imagined things. Hence, the importance of the sport for me today.

  3. Taking words and phrases literally and concretely is a characteristic, some might say a gift, of people with autism. Having worked with a number of young people with Asperger’s Syndrome, who even in adolescence took my words literally, has made me think carefully about the gap between intention and interpretation. It seems to me that understanding and finessing that gap is part of the art of writing.

  4. Karen Zey’s comments are right: a lot of disorders create problems of interpretation between figurative and literal; the inability to understand figurative language is a sign post of some disorders. In some cases, such issues can be “exploited” in our writing for comic effects. Other times a gret sadness arises from them. We have to pick our way carefully through such things.

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