Two Way Street

Last week I was reading through an early draft of the critical thesis of Mayumi Shimose-Poe, one of my students at the low-res MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and one of her sentences popped off the page:

“There is a tightrope between the poles of “insider” and “outsider,” and as a fiction writer one is writing as an outsider, trying to sound like an insider.”

Now that’s an elegant way of describing the fiction writer’s task, I thought, the empathetic imagining we need to employ in order to enter the inner world of someone quite different from us. I read the sentence a few more times, proud of my student, when the thought struck me–perhaps because I’m currently finishing a non-fiction book and a novel at the same time–that something like the opposite might be said about non-fiction writers. In non-fiction, particularly memoir, one is writing as an insider, while trying to gain the emotional perspective of an outsider.

It’s a two way street, isn’t it? (Cue the obligatory image!) The fiction writer

Picture 2

moves from outside to inside, while the non-fiction writer moves from inside to outside.

And this movement isn’t so very different from our own daily engagement with ourselves and others throughout the day. In order to understand a friend or family member during, say, a heated conversation, it helps to imagine what he or she is thinking. Sure, this is a fictional leap, since it’s impossible to know what another human being is thinking, but entering into the possible landscape of another’s thoughts, imagining that person’s perspective, is how we make our way through life.

On the other hand, if a person becomes tidally locked in his or her inner landscape, always buying one’s self-justifications and nurturing personal wounds, an effective corrective is simply to imagine oneself from the outside, to gain some necessary and potentially revelatory emotional distance.

As in our lives, so in our writing. We seek out what is unknown to us about our characters, try to imagine complexities we then mimic on the page. And when dredging up the stuff of one’s life in a memoir, it helps to hover outside oneself, like a ghost bent on the haunting possibility of insight.

So thank you, Mayumi, for that marvelous sentence!

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    1. With the amount of blogs that cater to people’s personal lives, this post has relevance. For many, blogging has become a form of memoir, so bloggers should heed this advice as well.

    2. Sue Pearson says:

      Patricia Hill Collins (1990, 1998, 2000) applied the term “outsider-within” to demonstrate how a position within a social location, where knowledge but not full power is gained, creates a distinct collective perspective. This phrase is referred to a great deal in a postcolonial and neo-colonial context and for those of us working on the margins/borders.Hereniko and Wilson co-edited a book entitled Inside Out which is an exploration of Literature, Cultural Politics, and Indentity in the New Pacific.

      Rosa Braidotti referred to tightropes too, but in reference to women writings and intellectual activity.

      …one aspect of contemporary feminist reflection which I find particularly striking is the element of risk that those thinkers introduce into intellectual activity…they reveal remarkable acrobatic talents as they trace mental routes across the void, without falling victim to gravity (Braidotti 1991: 280).

      This has all been the ‘stuff’ of my thesis (finished), so thought you might find it of interest.

    3. Philip Graham says:

      Thanks, Sue, for those references.

      A book you might enjoy, by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, is I, the Divine, a novel in the form of a memoir, which travels inside/outside in original ways.

    4. I am so incredibly flattered by your acknowledgment and engagement with my sentence, Phil!

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