To see inside

Susan and me, seeing through and back, July 2019

Seeing through, and seeing ourselves staring back: Susan and me in a glass house, Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, July 2019

“Writers aren’t alchemists who transmute words into the aurous essence of the human experience. No, they are glassmakers. They create a work of art that enables us to see inside to help us understand. And if they are really good, we can see our own reflections staring back at us.” ― Kamand Kojouri

Whether virtues, faults or neutral traits, most of us are able to see such characteristics more easily in others than we can see them in ourselves. Perhaps the clarity afforded by physical, psychological or emotional distance is one reason why fiction is so good at communicating truth. Storytelling can break through the defensive walls we build within, where it’s all too easy to rationalize our own behaviors and deceive ourselves about who we really are. King David is among many in history who learned this firsthand.

Think of some of your favorite stories. Don’t you identify, at least a little, with one or more of the characters? Do you find yourself rooting for a protagonist in difficult circumstances, no matter that person’s flaws or mistakes? Have you ever finished a novel feeling as if you understand your own family member or friend better, because the author was able to help you get inside the mind of an imaginary person?

The more polarized and conflicted the world becomes, the more important it is that we find effective ways to cut through misunderstanding and prejudice. Luckily, the world of literature knows no borders or boundaries. Through reading about all sorts of people– people in different eras or countries, people who are much older or much younger than we are, people of different backgrounds, whose attitudes and beliefs are not the same as ours– we can look through the walls rendered transparent by a skilled author. And best of all, when we see ourselves staring back, we realize maybe the differences aren’t as great as we though they were.

35 Comments

  1. Good morning, Julia!
    I often admire the characters in the books I read or have read. I’d like to be brave, brilliant, funny, level-headed or heroic.
    Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone with whom I can actually identify with more than Ramona Quimby, age 8. 🤦

    • Well, at least you know you have lots of company. Ramona has had consistent staying power over the years. I remember when I first became a youth services librarian back in the 90’s, I was amazed that Beverly Cleary’s books had the same popularity, more than 30 years later, that they had when I was a child. I guess some things are timeless. And many of us identify with Ramona, I think. 🙂 P.S. I hope you don’t mind that I posted your photo here without asking you first. Ramona would approve.

      • Ramona wouldn’t mind at all. 🙆
        Even this week, I found myself doing Ramona-things, taking on a big craft project, carrying heaps of items from place to place, creatively balancing things to prevent dropping them while holding an umbrella by wearing it like a hat! And let’s not forget painting my toenails and decorating them with backwards news-print!
        Someone should write a book or movie about Ramona in her old age. Do you suppose she ever “grew up”? I think I’d be a little disappointed if she did.

        • Hey, I thought I was the only one who balanced (usually unsuccessfully) an umbrella on my head to free up my hands! We need to take a cue from the great Lou Brock. (I used to sell Brockabrellas when I worked at Rich’s in the Sporting Goods department, but as Raynard says, I digress…) BTW re: whether Ramona grew up — maybe we should write Beverly Cleary, who is now a centenarian living in an assisted care home, and ask her. She is among the living people whom I admire most.

          • I would love to have a conversation with Beverly Cleary!

            • So would I. I wonder if she reads her fan mail?

  2. Chris

    Hi Julia,
    Glad you got a chance to see the video I sent. Today’s post immediately took me back to that of two weeks ago, “My Way Out”. I am one of those who lives vicariously thru the characters. And, through the camaraderie of certain groups (my graduating class at the academy, for example), I can identify and see virtues and traits that I not only aspire to, but with which I believe are within me as well – maybe that’s the fiction of it all.😊 Nonetheless, I can identify with a good story, a good shared experience, or a good encounter with another person. You are right, though, it’s much easier to see things in others than ourselves. But, I believe the more we engage, the more we come to understand the person within, and the more we can be that person. When that occurs, looking in the mirror is not a surprise; it’s a comforting affirmation.
    Have a great week!

    • Thank you, Chris. I hope we can all reach that stage– where looking in the mirror (figuratively if not literally) is a comforting affirmation. It’s certainly a worthy aspiration. Hope you have a great week too! It’s cooler today; that will help…

  3. Hi Julia,
    Long time! How are you?
    Here in India my new life keeps me busy.
    Loved this post! You have very well put across the real secret behind liking a movie or book. And pic is so apt.

    • Bindu, I am overjoyed to hear from you! I have thought of you so many times over the past few months, and wondered how you are doing. Now and again, I checked your blog to see if there was anything new that I had missed. I’m happy to hear you are able to be back in India (that was what you wanted, wasn’t it?) and I’m wondering if you are in Kerala? Just a few days ago, I was telling someone about my virtual visits to that lovely region via your blog. I still hope that someday I will see it in person. Will you be teaching again this year? I’m glad you liked the post. I’ll have to make another visit to your blog soon, to see if there are any new essays or poems. Meanwhile– thanks so much for stopping by. You truly made my day.

  4. So true. This is much needed in this day and time. Hurray for books!😊💓😊. Love to you and Matt!🌻🌸🌻

    • Hi Cherie, thanks so much for your cheerful presence here. I love the sunshine and flowers. 🙂 Keeping you in my heart and in my prayers!! Love, Julia ❤

  5. Rene

    A few literary characters I have identified with over the years: Nancy Drew, Francie Nolan, Emily Pollifax, Anne Elliot. I know there are more.

    • Rene

      Amelia Peabody.

      • Wow, thanks for another great intro! I have heard of Elizabeth Peters, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any of her work. I just popped on over to my local library and checked out the audio version of Crocodile on the Sandbank. I so enjoy being able to look up a character online and then find a copy of the fiction book that introduces them, all in less than a minute! There’s a wonderful browser add-on (free) called Library Extension. Whenever I look up a title on Amazon, it automatically checks all the libraries where I have a card (for me, that’s several) for copies of the book. I love it! In case you don’t already know about it, check it out (no pun intended): https://www.libraryextension.com/

    • Rene, three of those four are favorites of mine. I’m unfamiliar with Anne Elliot, because as much as I like Jane Austen, I don’t remember ever reading Persuasion. I might have read it and just forgotten it, though that doesn’t seem possible. I certainly identify with Elizabeth Bennett in many ways, though. Thanks for reminding me of Mrs. Pollifax! I was several decades younger when I first met her, but I need to get reacquainted now that I’m in her age group (she, of course, will ever be the same age). She makes a worthy role model for me. Sort of like a much older Nancy Drew, I guess.

      • Rene

        .Let me highly recommend PERSUASION; and suggest that when you are done reading, you check out the film adaptation with Amanda Root & Ciaran Hinds. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

        Reading the others’ comments, it seems more accurate to say that I live vicariously through the lady detectives (& the girl sleuth). I definitely identify with Francie & Anne though.

        • Rene, done and done! I have now downloaded the audio version of Persuasion and it has zoomed to the top of my “to be read” list (only Jane Austen can do that 🙂 ) and I have put the movie on my watch list for when I finish the book. Francie is probably the fictional character with whom I identify most, although Hermione Granger is not too far behind, especially when they are making fun of her hair, or when the teachers get annoyed with her.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly! I have come back to novels of late because they allow us to experience life through the eyes of another. Just recently, I decided to read “Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier when I read this quote. “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” It has been an interesting read because the experience of this individual(s) is one that I would never have encountered nor would I seek. I have gained greater understanding of the human spirit.

    • WOW, what a great quote. I might have to use that for a blog post sometimes. Also, thanks for telling me about that title. I looked for it and found an e-copy at my library which I promptly checked out, even though I might not be able to get to it anytime soon. I learn so much from the comments on this blog! I appreciate your contributions and ideas.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing my quote. This is a lovely post!

    • What a delightful surprise to have you visit here! I am truly honored. Thank you for inspiring this post with your gift for words.

      • What a lovely thing to say! Thank you again. The honour is all mine.

  8. Agreed–we are more like each other, overall, than not and we can keep supporting this with our own stories and other creative expressions. Thanks for a well wrought essay, Julia.

    • Thank you, Cynthia. It’s always a joy to hear from you. Your comments encourage me to keep going.

  9. And I like your photo by itself and in conjunction with your essay- 🙂

    • Thanks. When I saw that glass structure (with one wall made of lattice) I just knew I wanted to take a photo of us inside.

  10. Susan

    As usual, this is wise and insightful, Julia.
    One of my favorite authors is Maeve Binchy. She created the most sympathetic characters and even when the things they did might seem implausible, they felt very real. Often the characters reminded you of someone you knew. Lucy Maud Montgomery is another who gives me that feeling, of experiencing someone’s heart and soul. Both of them wrote about everyday people doing everyday things, but they made you really care about them.

    • Susan, I fell in love with Maeve Binchy on first read many years ago when I picked up The Glass Lake. She was really a talented author. I think I’ve read everything she ever wrote and have checked out a copy of her short stories that were recently published posthumously. Upon discovering her and Frank McCourt around the same time, I decided the Irish have a gift for storytelling that few cultures can match. I’m less familiar with Lucy Maud Montgomery but many of my friends love her books.

  11. Alan Malizia

    Julia, Great post!
    “Storytelling can break through the defensive walls we build within, where it’s all too easy to rationalize our own behaviors and deceive ourselves about who we really are.” So true. How often are we approached by someone who wants direction on a problem with the opening…I have this friend.
    -Alan

    • Alan, I have a friend who does that all the time! 😀 😀 😀

  12. Elena

    “… fiction is so good at communicating truth.”
    I love this, Julia.
    Some days ago, I was enthusiastically talking about the novels I love and my mother said that she does not like reading fictional stories when real life is so rich. I get her point but I told that, even if facts are invented, in good stories the message is true.

    • Elena, that’s an interesting observation by your mother. For me, the richness of real life is the canvas on which good authors paint masterpieces. It’s a context for going deeper and seeing into the souls of people who are, on the surface, often quite different from us. Another thing about real life is that, even with frequent travel and online documentaries and news stories, our knowledge of real life is of necessity very limited, and usually focused on our own experiences in familiar worlds. Of the people I’ve known who aren’t fond of reading fiction, many were science-minded literal thinkers who had a harder time stepping into imaginary settings, or putting themselves into the head of someone who thinks and acts quite differently. But, as the saying goes, it takes all kinds to make a world. And where would we be without our scientists with their objective laws and disciplined practice? But give me my fiction any day. 😀

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