In a review of Marie NDiaye’s book, Three Strong Women, Fernanda Eberstadt says, “NDiaye is a hypnotic storyteller with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives.”
I like that praise. I like what it means about NDiaye as a writer. I like what it tells those of us who write about what we should be doing.
How many times have your read a story or book and you just don’t get or don’t care for the character. It doesn’t feel good when the protagonist is triumphant in the end or the bad guy has to pay for his sins. That’s because the character isn’t well drawn, isn’t multi-dimensional – and he/she is like that because the writer never goes deep into the nitty gritty of who this person is.
But that is only half the story. Going deep is important, but not as important as having a deep to go to. Where does that come from? Where does one come to “an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives”? We do it by paying attention, by really analyzing ourselves and carefully noticing others. We take the joys, pains, fears, and obsessions we have about living and see how these same elements play out in others. Did you notice the woman on the bus who was talking to herself? Were you paying attention to how the boy who was lecturing his girlfriend kept punching his fist into his palm? Did you pay attention when the mother was walking 20 feet in front of her toddler on the busy street and didn’t look back to see if he was keeping up? Did you notice your best friend pull off the side of the road to help the woman who just had a flat tire? Were you amazed when 150 of your neighbors showed up at the Take Back Our Streets march? These are all mirrors into the human condition.
The more we observe – really observe – and the more we look deeply into ourselves, the more we connect with what it means to be a person with all the delight, embarrassment, hesitation, sadness and soulfulness it contains.
Go people watching at your local café. Observe conversation, pay attention to body language, look at how others are dressed and how they fidget. Start making up stories in your head about what is going on. Write down details, so you won’t forget. See if you can figure out who these people are, what controls them, what they try to control. Pull up every weird thing about yourself and see if you can find similar or different idiosyncrasies in the people around you. Go as deeply as you can. And collect it. That’s what our writing journals are for.
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