Writer’s Tip: The Value of Receptivity

A section I read in Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful “Booklife” last night reminded me of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned through a decade of international travel and cross-cultural work: be receptive to other world views. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it is for characterization and description to see the world through someone else’s eyes in as unbiased a manner as possible.

From a particular character’s point of view, you might write: “the crisp leaves sparkled in the sun, its rays accentuating the luscious green of their color.”

But what if you went inside the head of someone else who saw the same scene through different eyes. “The leaves’ sheen reflected the sun in blinding ways of blue-tinged light.”

There are people out there who see things very differently than you. And the more you know about how those people see the world, the richer your writing can be.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend in Ghana once, a student of one of my workshops, who insisted that God loves white people more than black people. Hearing a black African state that just blew my mind.

“Why would you think that?”

“Because white people are more blessed.  Look at their countries — wealth, power, success. Everything we wish we had and don’t.”

Another student once asked me what it was like to walk on streets of gold in America. And he literally believed the streets were paved with gold.

I visited an African coastal town once and was mobbed by children wanting to touch my skin. They rarely saw white people, our guide explained, you are like a god to them. Hearing that made me mad. I never wanted anyone holding me to that standard especially when it diminished the esteem which they held for themselves.

In Mexico once, I went to play with a friend’s daughters.  I love kids and playing with them delights me. But in this case I quickly noticed how everyone in the house kept a very close eye on me, and the older daughter kept her distance, only smiling occasionally but rarely actively participating in our game. Later, I was told that in the culture men are not expected to be able to control their natural sexual instincts, so they cannot be trusted with girls. I was horrified. I am no molester. I wouldn’t dream of it. Was that what they thought of me?

I bring these examples up (and I have many more) not to argue the merits or truth of the reasoning but to point out how different their view of the world is than someone from my background and culture.

The world is filled with such peoples of different views and by meeting them, interacting with them, and getting a glimpse of the world through their eyes, my world is richer. It doesn’t matter if their view of the world shocked or offended me. It doesn’t matter if it made me sad or angry. These examples inspired all four in me. What matters is that before I couldn’t imagine viewing the world through such lenses but now I can and as a result, I can now better write characters who view the world through lenses far different from my own.

Many of us meet people every day who see the world differently than we do. Those encounters are opportunities to expand our arsenal by engaging them in dialogue and trying to learn who they are and how they see things.  You don’t have to argue with them or agree with them to do that. In fact, I would urge you to avoid either. You’ll get a more honest perspective if you do. But what you can do is discover, through the powers of observation all writers are urged to cultivate and must to succeed, new ways of thinking and looking at things which can use to enrich your writing and your characters.

That’s why I love foreign films and stories and novels. I’m a much deeper, more well rounded person because of such encounters. And the box in which I place my world has grown much larger many times over as well. Grow your box. Build your arsenal and write better stories. The world will thank you for it…on many levels.

For what it’s worth…

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