Friday, July 19, 2013

On the Outside: A Writer's Prerequisite

I love my book club. We are incredibly diverse in our choices of literature. Tonight, we'll be discussing an Isabel Allende book, A Memoir: My Invented Country.

In a million years, I would never have picked the book off the shelf. Not because I don't like Allende. I adore her. But this is not fiction. It's about Chile, a country and its people. [Note to the mildly curious: I had once considered moving to Chile because I had a handsome Spanish teacher in college from Chile. He taught my hubby and I how to samba and drink espresso. But that's another story.] 

Back to Allende's book. Like all Allende writing, this book is fresh and provocative in its prose. This woman can evoke. But it's what she says about writers early in the book that made me scratch notes in the margins.

Once I heard a famous Afro-American writer say that from the time she was a little girl she felt like a stranger in her family and her hometown. She added that nearly all writers have experienced that feeling, even if they have never left their native city. It's a condition inherent in that profession, she suggested; without the anxiety of feeling different, she wouldn't have been driven to write. (xiv)

Sigh of relief! It isn't just me! Whether made by the death of my father and the subsequent search for the perfect place to land or that God molded me as an outsider looking in, I so get this feeling of the stranger. Even with my family. Even with my best friends. Even with my church family. Especially with my dog but not with my husband. 

Is it detachment or that I am observing, affectionately so, those around me?

I don't know.

Do you experience this sense of being a stranger in your milieu? Perhaps in some situations but not others? Here's the rest of the paragraph:

Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one's own circumstance and to clarify the confusion of existence, including insecurities that do not torment normal people, only chronic nonconformist, many of whom end up as writers after having failed in other undertakings.

I don't see myself as a chronic nonconformist, but I do squint down hard on just about everything before saying yea or nay. And failure? Well, I've found myself terribly out of step in some situations and felt compelled to step--or collapse--aside. I suppose that is a sort of failure to adapt, a strangeness where others felt at home. 

I'm relieved that at least two other writers--the original speaker and Isabel Allende--feel like strangers as I do. Weirdness loves company.

And you? Do you sense this feeling of being a stranger who wrestles with their circumstances to find understanding? Does this camaraderie bring you any comfort? Care to make it four writers on the outside?


Megan Sayer said...

Yes. Yes yes yesyesyesyesyes YES. Oh my gosh, YES.
Good heavens, did I write this? YES.
Until very recently I thought it was just me. Now, more recently still, I've found myself wondering whether I write because I was born (or shaped) that way, or whether I am that way because was born a writer. I'm not sure which idea I prefer.
I do know though, that I am a million times happier and more at peace with myself knowing now that I'm not alone. Thank you!

Shelley DuPont said...

Such a relief to read this! I've learned to find my own comfort zone because I've really fit in, even at church. This whole thing could have come from my own lips. It seems like it's taken failure to come to this point.

This morning, I was beginning to doubt myself and my ability to be a successful writer. Of course, I'm just starting. Reading this has showed me I just need to keep going. Thank you so much!

wanderer said...

...I so get this feeling of the stranger. Even with my family. Even with my best friends. Even with my church family.

You said it for me. I don't have a dog. My husband looks at me weird sometimes but he's getting there. :)

Patti Hill said...

Megan: Thank you for being so emphatic. I have no doubts that I'm not alone. Quite the contrary, I'm in great company.

Shelley: You've hit upon the important point, keeping on.

Wanderer: I should have said in my post that the world needs us to be on the outside, or our writing wouldn't hit the mark. Welcome to the fold.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

My sister and I were discussing something similar to this the other day. We just didn't stick a finger on the writer/outsider thing. I had an interesting experience with a friend that left me upset and hurt.

She said, "Why do people think they can be like that with you? They aren't like that with me."

Well. I think it's because of this exact thing. I'm different.

I have a harder time in close friendships (unless the other person happens to either be very understanding or a writer). I get downright anxious about parties because I'm afraid I'll say something weird (and I usually do). I'm realizing how really awkward I am.

But I'm at ease when I get to go to my critique group or a writers conference. That's where I feel at home (well, I feel at home in my hubby is VERY sweet to me).

For the first time in my life, I'm realizing that it isn't only because of the hand full of warts I had in elementary school or that my parents were divorced. I'm a different breed. Woof.

Let's run in a pack!

Jennifer Major said...


Everything Megan said, and more!

I feel like I could scream!
Yes! This is ME!!
But now that I have a diagnoses, NO WAY do I want any treatment of any kind!!!
I feel like writers *get* me.

I wish I'd known this 10 years ago.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: Definitely, writers must run in packs. And you are ALWAYS welcome to howl at the moon, too.

Jennifer: It's good that you don't want treatment. There isn't any. Just keep coming back where you're understood and appreciated.

Cherry Odelberg said...

"Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one's own circumstance and to clarify the confusion of existence, including insecurities that do not torment normal people, only chronic nonconformist, many of whom end up as writers after having failed in other undertakings."

Oh my, that is HUGE. This explains in a nutshell why my blog is subtitled, "They say I think too much."
Yes, those dearest relatives and friends - those who know me best -- say that. Wednesday, driving home from the second of my one day vacations, I threw up my hands (well, actually, I kept them on the steering wheel) and admitted, "I am odd. That's all there is to it and I might as well get used to it. I never fit and I never will fit (in any of the usual jobs or relationships)." Such a comfort to have it articulated so well!

Patti Hill said...

Cherry: You are in very good company, but I do know it can be painful. It is such a joy to be known and appreciated (thank you, Jesus, for meeting that need so profoundly). Perhaps I should have called my blog, An Odd Duck Went a-Writing. Thinking too much is what we do!

Lori Benton said...

Yes. Very much so. For as far back as I can recall (says the 4th grader who adored scientific books about wolves and just for fun wrote a novel based on one of them--what 4th grader does that?). It's only grown more profound since, and at times can still be wistful, if not downright painful, but I'm much farther along in the process of accepting it. Love this post, Patti. Thank you.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: Lovely to hear from you. Yes, wistful and painful but acceptance is key. It helps, and I've said this before, to be in the company of such beautiful compatriots.

Sara said...

Yes. Thank you.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Can I reply at this late stage? Just wanted to say I have long blamed my odd upbringing for my weirdness. Now perhaps I should look at honouring the writer side absurdity.