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Writing to the Stranger--A Key to Narrative Arc and Universality in Fiction

I'm going to make a somewhat radical proposition:

Writing to a stranger makes it easier to create a poem or story that feels complete to the writer and comes alive in the imagination of other people.

This proposition flies in the face of two beloved ideas about writing. First: if you're stuck, it helps to visualize a friend you can talk to. Second: You'll do best just writing for yourself.

These ideas contain important ingredients. Unless you've gotten a contract, you should never write a first draft thinking about the market or someone else's opinion. Also, in terms of audience, you should always write with a sense of basic safety--even though you may take risks that will make some readers uncomfortable. (Being intimate doesn't mean you can't disturb or even shock.)

But if you don't take the stranger into account and think of voice as a vehicle for connecting with someone who doesn't know you, you'll rarely create a story with universal resonance. It will also be harder to achieve the special intimacy that can happen between a reader and a writer. Except for a couple of lucky accidents, you're usually left with nothing more than a few powerful passages, well-written fragments, and anecdotes that people who know you will appreciate.

Writing to a stranger, however, helps create a story and a world because anonymity frees the writer to say almost anything and also forces the writer to find universal elements in the work--i.e. things that a stranger can relate to and recreate in their imagination.

Even though at first these elements may seem trivial to the writer--things they're grabbing at so someone who doesn't share the experience can translate--they almost always lead to significant events and images that help the story blossom into a concrete world, larger than the sum of its parts. These elements also encourage a narrative arc. By narrative arc, I mean a piece that feels whole, has unity, momentum, and leaves the reader with the sense of having gone on a journey--the sense that something happened.

Without question, there are certain strangers who are very hard to write or talk to. There's the government official one has written to three times about a visa. And the intimidating editor who's asked for revisions. These strangers usually belong to a category of people we actually experienced--the frightening grown-ups of childhood. They remain in our imaginations as static entities. (Sometimes it's helpful to exorcise them by making them into characters.)

The reader, however, is a special kind of stranger--a fellow traveler who is giving you the gift of time. This stranger wants to escape and be entertained but also wants to accompany an astute observer who will be honest about some aspect of life--often more honest than people around them. Even when we consider Kafka (the creator of the first known fairy tales of modern life) whose characters spoke endlessly (and fruitlessly) to intimidating strangers, his own voice was the voice of a vulnerable stranger reaching out to readers.

It's not an accident that there are so many stories about travelers who have heard--or who tell--amazing things to people they just met and will never see again. Most of us have had these experiences in colloquial settings--usually slightly urgent and surreal situations where there's a sudden common bond and a high guarantee of future anonymity. It's happened to me when a subway stalls, or people are milling the streets during a blackout. We usually talk about the immediate situation, then about mundane parts of our lives. The longer the situation lasts, the more likely we are to tell an intimate story.

These anonymous situations create strange confessional booths. They exist with a sense of dislocation and are populated by strangers who are trustworthy precisely because we won't ever see them again.

I hope I've made the argument that it's common and not at all illegal to have intimate conversations with strangers. The same principle applies to writing. If you are writing a story or a poem with a stranger in mind, it increases your range of intimacy and freedom.

However, the writer faces a challenge that strangers in a blackout or a stalled subway don't face: the situation doesn't begin with a common bond. The fact that the reader has bought the book or read the first sentence is a fragile connection. And the story is the only interface--a little like a floating screen that can intrigue, compel or baffle the reader.

To create a common bond, the writer must write to the reader as one would write a letter, and not for the reader, as one would write a paper in school. The writer must also be able to step back, and, at times, write from a distance, yet with the intention of wanting connection.

This is a special sort of connection. From the beginning of time, writers have forged a singular language of intimacy, much of which is nurtured by the fact that writing involves the meeting of two strangers.

As a corollary, then, I want to make another radical proposition: Writing to a stranger creates a special form of intimacy.

The writer is forced to create this intimacy precisely because the writer knows language is the only vehicle for connection and this language will reach a stranger in an unknown time and space. This means writers must be determined to connect and imbue their words with a power and a vector that will come alive in the imagination of a stranger. (One might say that prose and poetry exist in a renegade time and space, away from immediate public exposure.) The privacy of this meeting between the writer and the reader means the writer is free to show parts of lives that people rarely reveal, like loneliness, family secrets, leave takings, astounding reunions. In this sense alone, fictional and poetic forms are singular vehicles for revealing strict confidences.

But unless writers also use themselves, these confidences will be sterile and non-intimate. To use oneself means writers must work from extreme levels of vulnerability and honesty, even if they are writing things that couldn't possibly have happened to them. (Indeed, confessional writing that doesn't strive to connect can make readers feel quite isolated.) Perhaps the easiest way to understand using oneself is in terms of voice--who you are, how you express that artistically and how you strive to connect.

Every writer's voice is unique as a thumb-print. It often begins with a primitive sense of story, a first draft meant only for oneself. As the story grows, voice can disappear, and the story itself becomes an intimate communication with a reader.

When such intimacy occurs, both readers and writers experience extraordinary moments of connection. I know things about writers they'd never tell me in a conversation. And I realize readers know things about me that I'd never tell friends.

Feeling comfortable about writing to a stranger can open a lot of doors. The case for writing to the stranger, greatly simplified, can be turned into the following formula:

Writing to the stranger = increase in freedom of voice + increase in necessity for universal elements + increase in intimate conversation + increase in probability of a strong narrative arc.

There are thousands of strangers. And since they appear to us in so many different places and so many different ways, writers must find their own. Here are some questions that may help you find the stranger who is your best reader:

Where will we talk?

A bar?

A blackout?

A train?

An unfamiliar city?

Will we be in hiding?

Will we make love?

These questions are just the beginning. You'll ask many others. Or a stranger may ask one for you.

 

This column originally appeared in wordswimmer in a slightly altered form. Bruce Black, the editor, posts something new every week. If you went see more things on wordswimmer go to

 

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