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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October 23rd, 2009 by admin