Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Most Important Point of View--Yours

Right after college, when I had moved to New York and was just beginning to discover who I was as a writer and as a person, two brilliant young writers were making huge waves in the literary community--Junot Diaz with Drown and Edwidge Danticat with Breath, Eyes, Memory. A few years later, Jhumpa Lahiri came on the scene with her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. All three writers were (and still are) fiercely talented. Their works also shared the common themes of the immigrant experience and cultural marginalization. All three moved to the United States when they were very young--Diaz from the Dominican Republic, Danticat from Haiti, and Lahiri from London (though her family was from India).

I admire all of three writers greatly, but putting my young self up for comparison (a treacherous pastime all of us would do better to avoid) was hopelessly discouraging. It's one thing to compare talent--even if I fall short, there is at least the hope that one day, if I work hard, maybe I'll achieve similar skills--but another thing entirely to compare one's point of view. All three writers, by virtue of their cultural histories, had an inherently interesting point of view. I did not. I had a happy, quiet childhood and grew up in a small Maine town. Likewise, my young adulthood was focused, calm, and full of hard work.


No matter what I do, I will never be able to change my history, my cultural heritage, or who I am. My source material is far less interesting right off the bat. It's like starting a race one lap behind. This bothered me a lot early on. Who would be interested in the musings of a happy, well-adjusted person?

Two conversations I had over the past year helped me change my mind. The first was with a friend of mine who moved to the US from England five or six years ago. She confessed to me that while growing up in England she was obsessed with American culture and that a book about small town America seemed very glamorous and exotic to her. Really? It had never occurred to me that a story about rural America could be exotic to anyone. My world view, obviously, had been too narrow.

The second conversation was with my writing mentor, Richard Russo. I mentioned to him my fear of being too "normal" to be of any interest to readers and then he said the simplest, most remarkable thing--that my point of view is as valid as anyone else's.

Maybe I knew this all along, but hearing those words somehow gave me permission to be me without apology. So if you've experienced a similar feeling of self-doubt, let me pass on the following affirmations:

Your point of view is as valid as anyone else's.

You are an observer and have learned things about human nature just by virtue of being alive. 

What is dull to one person can be exciting to another. Not even Diaz, Danticat, and Lahiri 
appeal to everyone.

Your work will find an audience. 

So there. Now stop fretting and get back to work.

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