Writing Stories That Invite the Reader to Enter Someone Else’s Life

By Jack Limpert

A book I reread every few years is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s the story of a boy, Christopher Boone, who one night goes out to his backyard and discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden fork. It quickly becomes clear that Christopher sees the world in unusual ways, the ways a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, might see it. The story follows Christopher’s attempt to play detective and find out who killed the dog. For the reader, it’s a chance to see the world through the eyes of an autistic boy.

The book sold more than two million copies and in 2004 Haddon talked about it, saying, “The book has simple language, a carefully shaped plot and invites you to enter someone else’s life.” He then gives this advice to writers: “It’s not about you….Readers don’t want an insight into your mind, thrilling as it might be. They want an insight into their own…a book that will put them in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t even know existed.”
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Interesting goals for a writer: Do stories that invite the reader to enter someone else’s life. Do stories that will put the reader in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t know existed.

A Washingtonian story that did that was “Like Something the Lord Made,” by Katie McCabe. It told the story of a young African-American man, Vivien Thomas, who wanted to go to college and medical school in the 1930s but couldn’t. This is how the story begins:

Say his name, and the busiest heart surgeon in the world will stop and talk for an hour. Of course they have time, they say, these men who count times in seconds, who race against the clock. This is about Vivien Thomas. For Vivien they’ll make time.

Dr. Denton Cooley has just come out of surgery, and he has 47 minutes between operations. “No, you don’t need an appointment,” his secretary is saying. “Dr. Cooley’s right here. He wants to talk to you now.”

Cooley suddenly is on the line from his Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In a slow Texas drawl he says he just loves being bothered about Vivien. And then, in 47 minutes—just about the time he takes to do a triple bypass—he tells you about the man who taught him that kind of speed.

No, Vivien Thomas wasn’t a doctor, says Cooley. He wasn’t even a college graduate. He was just so smart, and so skilled, and so much his own man, that it didn’t matter.

Katie’s story won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 1990 and then was made into the Emmy-winning HBO movie, Something the Lord Made.
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Great stories, like the one about Vivien Thomas, try to let us enter someone else’s life and they try, as Haddon says, to put us in touch with a part of ourselves we didn’t know existed.

Often these are stories of courage, of overcoming tough odds, tough breaks. The autistic boy in Haddon’s novel was trying to overcome what he was born with, a kind of autism. Vivien was trying to overcome racial and economic barriers. I asked Katie if thinking this way about stories made sense to her. Here is her answer:

“I feel that all great stories give readers access to worlds they couldn’t otherwise inhabit or imagine—some with more emotional impact than others, depending upon the inherent emotionalism of the body of facts and the author’s skill in conveying the emotions.

“There are many techniques for making a world so real for readers that they feel they are actually present in the story and are totally unaware of the presence of the author. In the case of the Vivien Thomas story, I was writing about someone who’d died before I started the story, and as you well remember, when I learned about Vivien’s death I nearly gave up because I felt that there was no way to get inside his mind and have any understanding at all of the human being. Even when I discovered and read his autobiography, I felt the task was hopeless because the autobiography was so highly technical, and so opaque as to Vivien’s thoughts and feelings, that it seemed useless as a foundation upon which to build a story anybody would want to read.

“The turning point for me was discovering a long taped interview of Vivien and once I heard his voice and felt his humanity, I returned to the autobiography with a new eye and was, after several re-readings, able to decode it and understand that Vivien was actually revealing quite a lot more about himself and his feelings toward Blalock and about race than I had initially thought. I then interviewed everybody I could find who knew Vivien in any capacity, and slowly began to form a real sense of the man. These are all pretty standard research techniques for biographers, I’d say. I kept going and going until I was saturated with the information and had a feeling for Vivien that was very vivid and sharp and real.

“As for the emotional element in ‘Like Something the Lord Made’: I think the emotional impact of that story came from the shape that I gave to the body of facts. I felt very strong emotions about Vivien and my emotions are in that story, between the lines—my admiration for his nobility, my sense that he’d been wronged, my sadness that he and Blalock were ‘so close but so far away.’ I tried to get that across without seeming to be present in the story.”

 

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