Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Writing About What Is

One of the most helpful books I ever read is Loving What Is by Byron Katie. Katie says that what “should be” is “what is.” Accept that and you will have a happier life. That doesn’t mean you simply smile at injustice and shrug your shoulders at misfortune. You still have the ability to respond to the world around you. I think what she means (at least part of what she means) is that when we stop judging everything as good or bad, we stop wasting our energies. We can use the energies in more productive ways.

I had to remind myself of that one day as I walked through the airport (I spent a lot of time walking through airports this summer), and I looked at the people around me. Some were hurrying past. Some were staring bored from their cushioned seats in the gate areas. Some were talking with exaggerated importance on their cell phones. Some were reading. Some were chatting among themselves. I noticed their clothes, their sizes, their ages, their hairstyles, their behavior. We tend to want to judge other people and there’s nothing like being surrounded by strangers to trigger the judging reflex.

Our prehistoric mind trained us to make snap judgments to keep us out of danger. The danger has mostly disappeared but the snap judgments haven’t. And so often our judgments come from our own insecurities. I’ve been worrying about my weight lately so my eye tends to look for overweight people as a way to comfort myself that it’s okay to be overweight or that there are fatter people than me out there.

But this day I realized the pointlessness of judging. When we are writing, we are better off not judging. The writer’s job is accepting, describing, and recording what is. It’s a more honest way of writing. So as I looked at the people milling around me, I simply made catalog notes: six foot-tall with a beard, jeans, and a Metallica t-shirt, an unhurried gait; five-foot-two, about 150 pounds, frizzy red hair and a wide smile; three foot one, head covered with beaded braids, hanging on to Mommy’s hand.

As writers we are constant observers of other people. We want to be one on whom nothing is lost, as Henry James said of Isabel Archer. It’s important to know our own prejudices and put them aside as we study our fellow inhabiters of the planet. We are all permutations of consciousness. We’re all playing our roles.

David Denby wrote a review of the film The Help. It was a mostly positive review, and I’ve heard many people say they absolutely love the movie. But Denby made one comment that made me think about this idea of judgment. He said that the writer neglected to make the point that the oppressors in that particularly oppressive social system were also victims of that system. Whether that’s an accurate statement about the film or not, I do not know. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but it raises an interesting problem -- getting at the truth of a situation.

And that leads me to the crucial step in the process of transformative writing: when we can create characters without judging them; when our characters reveal the complexity of their situations, and when we can identify even with our most misguided characters, then our writing can be transformative in exciting and important ways.

This summer I heard Tayari Jones speak at the American Libraries Association. She said she couldn’t get a handle on the character of the father (a bigamist) in her book Silver Sparrow until she realized this about him -- he had never not offered to marry a woman who came to him and said she was carrying his child. Understanding our characters at that level is transformative writing. That’s alchemy.

DIY: Find a public spot. Write descriptions of the people you see without using judgment words (pretty, ugly, etc.). Then choose one of them and write a monologue for that person. Turn him or her into a character. Discover the back story.

1 comment:

  1. Another great piece of writing advice. I'm going to try this.