by Elizabeth Strout
I have always been interested in the fact that if six people are sitting in a room, whatever happens in that room, it is experienced in six different ways. Each response, of course, has to do with the character of the person involved, and this combination – character and point of view, is what interests me most in writing. If we think of character as how one “acts” in life, the responses and decisions they make, then it seems to me that a great deal of the plot of a story or novel will arise organically from the character, and his or her respective point of view. Put a character in conflict, and all sorts of surprises will rise off the page. The quest is that of writing from the inside out, not the outside in.
In order to fully inhabit the character of a fictional creation, the writer needs to simultaneously leave themselves and use themselves, which is to say that whatever life experiences they have had, will be the springboard for trying to imagine what it is to be someone else. And yet this is done most effectively if they can actually lose themselves in the process. Another way of putting this, is to get the writer to let go of any agenda they may consciously or unconsciously be clinging to.
An exercise I developed that has proven to be, at the least interesting, and at the best quite helpful, is to think back upon the most recent intense altercation or disagreement you have had with someone in real life. It should be an occasion where you were absolutely certain of the rightness of your position. After you ruminate on this experience of discord for a few minutes, write the scene from the other person’s point of view.
Inevitably, this proves difficult. Right away you will scribble along, often smiling, often scowling, and yet when you reread the piece, it becomes evident that you are – not always, but quite often – still holding onto to your initial point of view. You may be recording the argument from your husband or mother’s eyes, but you have not truly inhabited what it felt like to be in that other’s position. Often this exercise takes two or three revisions before one understands that they need to let go – that it is all right to let go, in fact essential – to our own personal sense of right and wrong. This is important because any judgment we bring to the page will dampen the freedom of the prose. And it is this freedom that the writer is after; the freedom to write about what it means to be human. The freedom to use their own experiences and emotions in a new and originally rendered way – through the eyes, bodies, and soul of another.