Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Monday Fluff Post: Suspension of What?

A few weeks back, we had a conversation at the dinner table about…something, I don’t really remember what it was. Books, movies, maybe something else, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is I reached for a phrase, one that the writers among my readers are probably familiar with (and maybe everyone, I’m not sure): Suspension of disbelief. I reached for the phrase, but what came out of my mouth instead was ‘belief’, as in “suspend our belief” I’m not sure why it came out the way it did, except that it seemed exactly right at the time.

The very next day I saw this phrase in a comment on someone else’s blog: “but it certainly requires some suspension of disbelief.” Funny that this popped up less than 24 hours after I butchered the phrase. It made me think about it again. And, turtle that I am, here it is, a month later, and I’m finally posting something about it.

According to history as told by Wikipedia (suspect though it may be), and Bartleby’s familiar quotations, the phrase was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge back in 1817:

“It was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Wait, what did he say?

Let’s see. If I read a book that involves a magic carpet, what am I suspending to enjoy? As far as I know, carpets can’t fly, they can’t be imbued with a magical energy that lifts them off the ground and renders them capable of flight. So, I suppose I don’t believe in flying carpets, thus I’m suspending my disbelief. ‘Suspending my disbelief’ is, therefore, the correct expression.

But wait! Carpets can’t fly! To believe that a carpet can fly, I must suspend my belief in the world I know, in order to pretend to believe in something else. So, maybe I am suspending my belief after all.

My head hurts. I believe it’s time for another cup of coffee.

On another note:

My wife returned from her trip to visit her brother. She did not bring my book back. I think she tossed it out somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Seriously, it’s now in the hands of my sister-in-law (hmm, she’s married to my brother-in-law, so does that make her my sister-in-law, in-law?), who is an avid reader. Once my wife had read it, I found it was easier to leave it with another person that I know. I am relieved that my wife liked it, and that she didn’t come home giving me this look:

I have to have a serious conversation with her about it now, though, see if I can tease out of her anything that was wrong beyond the page of spelling errors and typos that she e-mailed me.

It’s been a relief, I have to say, having it out of my hands, and my head. I’m nervously awaiting an unbiased opinion, but that was one big hurdle crossed.

For my American readers, I wish you all a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving. For my non-American friends, I wish you a happy, healthy and safe week. I’ll be back on Friday.

8 Responses

  1. Donald Maass has a good explanation for overcoming reader skepticism in his book, "The Fire in Fiction." Basically it comes down to where you start your story, in media res (the middle), and how you build your world with believable characters.

    As for your ms, make sure you share it with other writers. they're the ones who will make it better, who will make you an even better writer. Find writers for beta readers, and more importantly, critique partners.

    And lastly, if your wife gave HER sister your ms, then she is YOUR sister-in-law. Her husband is your WIFE'S brother-in-law, not yours. Got it?

  2. Nancy — I'll have to take a look at that one, thanks for the tip. MS is with another writer, so I'm looking forward to seeing those comments.

    My wife gave her brother's wife my MS. I suppose she's my sister-in-law no matter how you slice it. It's easier that way, regardless. Thanks for the comments!

  3. You know, I almost find it more difficult to let my husband read something than another writer. I know that the writer will understand the task and relate to the terror of sending out for a crit. My husband…I am terrified he will look at me with pity and disappointment. He's so supportive – I don't want him to go unrewarded for that. Does that make sense?

    I guess I'm trying to say – I think letting the spouse read the MS is a big deal and I'm glad she liked it enough to pass it on. Hooray!

    Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. It makes perfect sense, Jennifer. When I was running around doing educational programs in schools, I was always most nervous when I did programs in my kids' classes. I think it's because we want to look good for the people we're closest to. As much as I want *you* to love my book and respect me, it's much more important to me that *they* do so.

    I did have a good talk with my wife about it this morning, and actually did elicit some more criticism out of her, which is good. And she's still not giving me the 'Benny Hill look' (pictured above), so I don't think she's sugar-coating things when she tells me she liked it.

    And thank you. Same to you!

  5. Hey, congratulations on getting your first feedback. Glad your wife liked it! I was terrified when I first let my aunt (who I'm living with) read my book. I really expected a reaction along the lines of "You spent HOW long in my house–writing THAT?" along with the look that you pictured in your post. Her reaction was very positive, but I share your thinking that it's more intimidating to give the book to the non-writers in our lives than the writers. Hope the crit you get back is helpful!

  6. A good writer can make the reader believe almost anything, I think. But yes, considering the suspension of disbelief, when it works and when it doesn't, can make the head hurt. Thanks goodness for coffee. ; )

    How great that you wife liked you story! Sometimes those closest to us can be the toughest critics.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. I'm so glad you posted this, because I have often mulled about this phrase. To me it should be 'suspension of belief' literally in the sense of 'disengaging belief for the duration of the moment/story.' not 'suspension of disbelief', meaning disengaging non-belief' for the moment/story.

    I don't know why I think that, lol, but I do. And I agree, it's head-spinning to try and figure out what it means. 😉

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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