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When Writing Takes Us Outside Our Own Skins

Posted on Jan 28, 2007 by

The thread this month (though this may or may not be apparent) is the way that coming at things from a different perspective—a new angle—can sometimes lead to good things. And when I think about looking at things from a new angle—from a fresh perspective—one of the things that comes to mind for me is something I learned from college freshmen when I first started teaching them.

When I first started teaching writing, I wanted the students in my classes to care about what they were writing. So I started out by telling them they could write about whatever they wanted.

This did not go quite as well as I’d imagined it might. For the most part, the students wrote about their dormitories, their roommates, fraternities, beer. They seemed just a bit bored by their writing—and, I’ll admit, I was a bit bored by it as well.

I suggested maybe they try writing about something more controversial—argument papers. They gave me papers on abortion and gun control. Lots and lots of papers on abortion and gun control. And, well—it was still boring. For them and for me. Their sentences seemed canned, as if someone else and not them had written them. They were giving me what they thought I wanted. They were giving me what they thought teachers wanted.

I kept trying. Then at some point in the middle of the semester I remembered that story the teacher had told us about Sarah and her son—about writing fiction from a new point of view—and I told the students I wanted them to try stepping out of their skins. Their assignment: to write a paper from a different point of view. I invited them to imagine inhabiting some another body—animate, inanimate, I told them it made no difference. Just imagine being someone or something else, I told them. Be a different age. Be a different gender. Be a rock. And then write about it.

And they wrote.

John, an avid hockey player, imagined himself as a hockey player who had undergone a crippling accident and was left in a wheelchair. He wrote a story about this young man sitting in his wheel chair, watching movies, over and over, and then, one day, getting up and out of the wheelchair and travelling into the movie screen, onto a space cruiser, and then deep into the Andromeda System, to a planet called Saturn 9, which was like a place the young man used to dream about as a child.

David became a police officer who got shot in the line of duty.
Sam became a homeless man.
Glenn became Alfred Einstein—Albert’s nephew.
Chris became a white Camaro.

The students leapt out of their skins in ways I had not anticipated. It was as if I’d pointed to a door and they flew through it. Actually, the five stories I’ve just described briefly here were chosen by these students as their best work of the semester, and they were in turn chosen for publication by the editors of the freshman review, a small magazine at the university of the best freshman prose and poetry. And, as it turned out, their stories accounted for half the prose pieces in the review, suggesting that I wasn’t the only person who found these new stories they’d written of interest.

The stories they produced by inhabiting another body were both more compelling and more vivid, by far, than any of their previous writing. And—and this surprised me—the stories were more intimate. For some reason—and I have no clue why—it was the young men in particular who took to these stories. These stories seemed to give them a new vehicle for exploring their imaginations and their emotions.

A story of loss:

He was the cripple. He was the one who would never skate again or feel the cool breeze off the ice as he followed the puck down the right wing side boards, decked the defense and sent the puck sailing into the net through the goalie’s five slot.

A story of young love:

I was just a bashful white Camaro of seventeen, hardly able to catch second gear around a curve on a wet road.

It was as if fiction allowed these students the opportunity to inhabit another body for moments at a time, and somehow, by inhabiting this other body, to break a taboo—to say something tender, to say something new. Fiction gave them permission to explore what seemed like untapped territory in themselves, to say something intimate—even surprising.

I remember having this thought and I’ve never forgotten it: that fiction gave these eighteen and nineteen-year olds just enough cover to reveal themselves.