It always amazes how little we know about each other. When I lived in New York City, I remember looking up at the hundreds of windows in a random apartment building and imagining the real live stories going on within each apartment. Or watching my fellow subway travelers and wondering where they came from and where they were going. Who were they going to meet? Why did that young man wear a secret smile? How did that old woman feel when she had to push through the crowd to emerge onto the platform? Where were those dressed-up teenagers headed and what were they whispering about?
A reason fiction is so appealing is that all those mysteries are revealed. It’s an extraordinary gift to know what someone is thinking or what their motive is for their next action. Imagine sitting on a bus, and being able to ‘hear’ what the person next to you is contemplating. To know their story and their experience of living. Not just that, but to be included in their insight into their own thoughts. As the layers peel away, a person is revealed to us and our thirst for knowing more about them is quenched. That’s why I love fiction.
It’s much harder to do that in real life. When you first meet someone, it’s as though physical presence and the relationship between you creates layers and distance between you. People say the human connection is the most important thing in the world, and I agree – and at the same time it fascinates me how hard it is to make that connection. We’re all such insulated bubbles, caught up in our own heads and encased in private emotion. I am continually astounded when I learn something about someone I thought I knew well – a childhood experience they had, perhaps, or a feeling about something that matters to me as well, or a difficult thought.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I increasingly meet people through the strange world wide web that crisscrosses our planet – some of whom I now count as true friends, although we may never actually meet. Somehow our letters, our shared work of writing, our mutual interest in ‘the other,’ transcends the need for physical encounter and inspires a connection where what matters most is revealed long before we learn what color are our eyes or what we had for breakfast.
Fun Writing Practice
Try writing an autobiographical piece about yourself. Write it in the third person, as a short story, with interior dialogue, description, mood – all the qualities of writing we’ve been working on over these past months.
What is most important about your life? Birth date, hair color, job? Or is it a formative experience? Or might it be something you believe in?
Close your eyes and really think about this: What do you want people to know about you?
Come up with an over-arching theme rather than a time line of your life. What inspired you to leave your home or to sing in that first coffee house? What is a secret longing you’ve never shared? Your theme might be a great obstacle, a true love, the onslaught of sickness, impending doom, joy, a sea change. As you write, locate what the theme of your biography is, and when you title your piece, try to net that theme in the title and, perhaps, a subtitle.
When a biography is written in a fictional style, where the reader is allowed a deep glimpse into the subject’s head and heart, it works much more powerfully. If you’re stuck on how to begin, mull on Paul Gaugin’s famous painting. In it, he asks the vital questions that we need to ask of our friends, as well as of ourselves:
WHERE DID WE COME FROM
WHO ARE WE
WHERE ARE WE GOING
P. Gaugin 1897 Tahiti
- candlelight and daffodils in a wintry twilight
- dancing in your sleep
- looking out a train window
- after the storm