On Being an Outsider
It took me a long time to understand that the feeling I’d had since I was a child–that feeling of always having my nose pressed to the glass, of being just at a slight remove from the flow of life around me–was an indispensable part of my becoming a writer. Writers are by necessity, and by definition, outsiders. We are observers of life, which doesn’t mean we aren’t living life, not at all–but it does mean that there is always some small part of us, standing back. The part that’s noticing, rather than engaging. A great bit of dialogue, a slant of light, an expression on someone’s face, and somewhere inside of us we feel a small jolt. Once you’ve felt it, it’s unmistakable. Interesting, is what the jolt is saying. Good material. Does this make us merciless? Terrible betrayers of our friends and family, of anyone who crosses our path?
I remember, once–and this has only happened to me once in my life–having dinner with a very famous American woman of letters who has written many, many books. We were with friends at a restaurant, and I had the uncanny sense that this woman–an idol of mine, really–was watching me carefully, taking mental notes. It was a disconcerting feeling–but I knew it was happening, and in a way, I didn’t mind. It went with the territory. Sometimes, in the midst of telling me a story, a friend or acquaintance will stop and say: you can’t write about this. Or, I’ll bet you’re going to write about this. It’s almost never the case, when someone says this, that I had been feeling the ping. Other people’s stories don’t generally interest me as a writer. Instead, I’m after a deeper kind of observation–the kind that then I can unleash in my imagination. Nose pressed to the glass, the observer in me is interested in human nature. In what makes us tick. It isn’t a conscious thing, so much as an impression, a kind of music. And in order to feel these things, to be porous and open and aware enough, I have to remain just slightly on the outside.
As a kid, it wasn’t easy. As a young woman, I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just be part of the group? The gang? Why couldn’t I be an insider, instead of just pretending to be one? I might not have chosen this for myself. It’s sometimes lonely, to stand on the outside, watching. But I think most of us would say that it isn’t a choice, really. When I was first teaching, a student came to me and asked if she should be a writer, or go work for an investment bank. I told her she should definitely go work for the investment bank, because if it was a choice, truly a choice, then she wasn’t a writer. We don’t choose to be writers–we don’t choose to be outsiders, observing life. It isn’t so much what we do as what we are. Most days, I feel grateful for that little bit of remove.