Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mister Rogers, time traveler

Raise your hand if you've ever watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Is that everybody? No?

Okay, for those who missed out, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a public television show for kids produced in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It ran from 1968 through 2001, and is still shown in reruns on some stations. The eponymous Fred Rogers passed away in 2003. For younger readers who missed out, think Teletubbies, with a Presbyterian minister who wears a cardigan instead of cartoon characters with TVs embedded in their tummies.

A short story I had grinding through my rewrite mill for a while -- and finally declared finished late last month -- includes incidental references to the show. In one scene, the twelve year old protagonist's little sister is watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. He looks in on little Marissa entranced by the TV, and sneeringly disparages the show as "stupid." He's twelve, he's got a younger sister, what do you expect?

But here's the interesting thing:

Given the impressive span of years that the show ran on public television -- 33 years in production, never mind another eleven years of reruns to-date -- the fact that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is on TV in a short story doesn't date the tale very precisely. Seventies, Eighties, Nineties -- the tale could easily be set in any of those decades, or later if the show were a rerun.

But consider this: one of my late-draft readers, J--, assumed that because Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is on TV on page five of the story's manuscript, it had to be set in the 1970s.

Now why would she think that?

I pointed out to J-- that while the show did run throughout the seventies, it also ran without interruption into the 21st century. J--, who does not have children who might have watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood during the years since she did, was surprised to learn this.

Now I think that J--'s assumption is easy to assume. While I had in mind that the story took place in the 1990s, and there's nothing in the story that couldn't have occurred then, it's also true that there isn't much in the way of temporal precision in this particular piece. One might like to imagine the critics calling it timeless. We'll see about that.

So the takeaway is that a reader, quite reasonably, projected her own personal experience of a reference in a short story onto the story itself. Because she watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in the 1970s, a story in which Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is on TV must be taking place in that decade. Q.E.D.

One of the rewards of writing fiction is to hear how readers are drawn in so deeply that they inhabit the story's world. This can happen in either direction: the reader seeing her own world in the story, or the reader being transported into the story's world. Depends on the reader. And the story.

Another piece of short fiction, one I'm still working on, features a couple of kids getting in way over their heads when they swim in a deep, cold quarry pool. That story recently survived a second round of critique by my writers' group. One critiquing writer said that when she finished reading it she realized that the evocation of swimming in cold water left her feeling as if she herself were "freezing." Now that's a compliment (thanks K--).

Fiction might lead us to fathom our own particular universe, or draw us out to explore others. You never know where you're going to end up when you let words have their way.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Story Matters
Craft and art: erasure and accent
More on place in fiction
Place in fiction

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