Friday, June 1, 2018

Empathetic Magic and Writing: Lose Yourself in the Cheetah

This essay on writing by Cutter Wood (and how great a name is that?) speaks to something I definitely understand.

The moves in the book that felt most freeing were not taking on the perspective of the victim or the murderer, but these brief dips into other points of view—a minor character, a bird sitting on a branch. Those moments where, in the space of a single adjective, the lens just shifts slightly. As a writer, that’s where I feel happiest, I guess.
All of this is a way of trying to move past our fundamental loneliness. ... we have these amazing computational organs in our heads, and seemingly the only thing they can’t do is connect to another one?

When I was a kid, I used to play by myself all the time, and much of what I played at was mental - empathetically occupying the body of our dog, or the neighbor's cat, imagining what it felt like to be "big", to use the counter without climbing anything ... to be a boy, or to be old, or to lack a limb or the use of them.

I envisioned my body in states other than the state I lived in, other than the species I lived in, and really tried to imagine what a tail must feel like, or limbs all one length, carrying me all at once, without free hands, with my head out front instead of on top. It was especially interesting to imagine inhabiting a snake or a worm - something ALL tail, or something without bones. To project myself into fish was difficult, but elephants, fascinating.

Really, it's the most concentration I can think of ever honestly applying to *anything* in my life. I'm not good at physical endurance, I never was an intellectual. But play? Solitary play, imagining myself out of my life, into something else's? Irresistible. Wonderful.

The connection, for me, to writing - what Wood describes in his experiences, the ineffable transfer out of self or transformation of nonself internalized ... his feeling is different, but I understand it.

Diana Gabaldon says something to the effect that "write what you know" is a drag, that the very point of storytelling is to evoke - to occupy - a world other than one's own. This is elemental, for me, as a writer. I could not be less interested in replicating myself, or my environs - for me, the entire point of reading and writing both is the escape from the everyday, the release from myself.

Irresistible. Wonderful. And who needs a story without wonder?

All this is not to say I dislike living in my own skin. It's good skin, and I've cultivated quite a nice life in it. But it is JUST too interesting to think about what others' lives, worlds, experiences must be. I know my own life pretty well, so reading about it or writing about it doesn't have the same draw as reading about altered landscapes, different eras, unknown people.

The point Wood makes about fundamental loneliness, too: I considered myself a bit friendless as a child. I wasn't - it's just that childhood is not a perpetually social experience, and (looking back) being alone might have been the only way to stretch my brain and get away from ordinary old family life. I used to sit in my closet alone, I'd appointed it with books and my beanbag chair. I would take Speedy, my gerbil, and read and let him scritch and tickle around my knees and arms. Sometimes, it was the front porch or back patio. Or even the loft in the shed my dad built.

I would read, or just throw myself into some imagined world - desiring to be grown up, glamorous, living in the 19th century, or the first ... surrounded by people, in my mind, but people I created, maybe controlled. Costume excited me, and history. And animals, of course.

My older niece went through a prolonged period as a puppy. She had a "tail" (a pink leash, clipped to whatever pants or skirt she was wearing), she was always in character. And the character was complete; she would not break it, not even for her granddaddy, sometimes only reluctantly for mealtimes. She wasn't even telling a story, she WAS the story.

That seems a long time ago, but I can remember that too - watching, and knowing I had once been the same, though without her levels of sustained concentration. I might make it an hour, building my consciousness inside an imagined body, but she sustained this for months, maybe a year. And, it happens, this was during a difficult time in our family, in her life. That puppy life probably, for her, provided the control I got out of living in another century with characters I got to conjure.

Each borrowed gesture—whether it’s an intentional homage or just something a writer adored and internalized‚ is a sign someone or something broke through.

There is both danger and security, wearing the skin of another character, of an animal. And, like Richard Pryor's cheetahs ... just a WHOOSH of your own breath ... and the cheetahs disappear.

But they were there. They were real.

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