Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Matter of Perspective

Last night my wife and I watched the wonderful HBO biography film "Temple Grandin."  I've followed Grandin's work in the past and have heard several interviews with her and have long been fascinated by her.  An autistic, Grandin has revolutionized the cattle industry by designing cattle-friendly apparatus that help move the animals from feedlot through to slaughter in a humane manner that focuses on keeping the animals calm.  A repeated line from the film is "Nature is cruel but we don't have to be."  She developed radical new ways of managing cattle by close study from their perspective, literally by dropping to all fours and moving through pens and chutes and by watching the patterns of milling cattle.  An autistic who thinks entirely in images, she is capable, in essence, of seeing like a cow.  Put plainly, she thinks differently from most of us.  She offers an entirely different perspective.  Indeed early in the film Grandin is depicted (in a stunning performance throughout I might add, by Claire Danes) in her first year at boarding school when a sympathetic teacher watches and listens closely enough to begin to recognize some of the patterns of her thinking process and then challenges her with a science experiment to explain how an optical illusion that shifts perspective can make two identical objects look of different sizes.

There are valuable lessons in the film about accepting people who are different from ourselves, about challenging our own patterns of thinking, about how we define intelligence, about how we should support the efforts of our children and how we meet their needs, about how we see our food sources...the list could go on.  But what does this have to do with writing?  Everything.  So much of writing, both in fiction and in nonfiction, is about trying on other skins, as one of my poet friends likes to say.  To succeed in portraying with authenticity the desires, thoughts, goals, worries, and philosophies (to name but a few qualities) of other people, be they fictional or real, we must come as close as possible to understanding how they think, just as good teachers must recognize that in any given classroom they have any number of individuals who will access the material that one is attempting to teach in radically different ways.  We can't get all the way inside some one's skin no matter how hard we try, but try we must to enter an other's mind, to enter their very thinking processes if we wish to portray in them in a manner that feels authentic and believable and if we truly wish to access their interior lives.

And still there are other applications to be learned here as well.  Among them is this:  it is inevitable in a writing life that we will encounter problems within manuscripts that will seem insurmountable obstacles.  Very often the only real way across those obstacles is to think about them in entirely new patterns, literally to change our perspective.  Sometimes this means reconsidering the cause of the problem.  The problem that may seem linguistic in nature may have its real roots in character psychology.  The problem that may seem a matter of ill-defined character may actually be one of structure.  The thematic flaw may prove simply mishandled within the language used to express it.  The solution that is revealed when you think you're at the copy-editing stage may be one with its true roots all the way back to a needing a different narrative point of view.  The point is we must be open to re-imaging text at times.  We must see it from new perspectives.  A universal need in all revision for writers of every type of material is a kind of perspective-based optical illusion--the need to step outside the writer's vision and achieve success in reading the material as a reader will do.  Failure to do this will always result in a failed text.

(And a postscript--the film "Temple Grandin" can prove instructive to the writer as well, for its creators had to imagine ways to convey Grandin's perspective and did so with innovations that are clean, artistic, effective, and entirely transferable to the writer producing text.)

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