The Other Side of the Story

Matilda Butler runs a column of writing prompts on the Women's Memoirs site. The current one is about point of view and includes some gorgeous photos of Mt. Shasta that visually illustrate her points. She suggests writing about an experience from your own original point of view, and then again from your current one. As an additional twist, you can write again from someone else's point of view.

I was not thinking of this exercise when I wrote the following mini-essay in an e-mail to a friend. As I read over it before sending, it came to mind. I realized that in a very few words, I covered all three of those angles. Can you find them? They are somewhat interwoven, which is a good way to make your writing sound organic.

Back in the '60s when we were newly weds and living in an $85-per-month ground-floor apartment in Boston, Frau Levy, a sturdily built German-Jewish woman, lived above us. Though she was barely five feet tall in her stocking feet, she sounded like an elephant thumping around overhead. A jingle kept running through my mind, to the tune of “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” (aka “Away in a Manger”): “Tread lightly Frau Levy, we live down below.” Fortunately she did not keep us awake at night. I have no idea if Jack Paar (later Johnny Carson) kept her awake ‘til midnight — we did try to be good neighbors by keeping the volume as low as possible.
I never spoke with Frau Levy. I knew her name only from the label on her mailbox. I don't even know if she spoke English, though she must have known some. Everyone else in the building—several women and a couple of men—was old, and I didn't know a single one. I assumed they were refugees from Hitler. What a shame. If I'd gotten acquainted I could have become fluent in German (or were those Yiddish fragments I heard?) instead of being unable to say Guten Morgen understandably after two years of classes, and I could have learned enough to fill volumes about their refugee experience before and after they fled. But I was afraid of my shadow back then, and they seemed as strange and arcane as visitors from outer space. I had no idea what to say to them. I'm sure this went both ways. From their point of view, even if they did speak English, what could they possibly have had in common with a ditsy shiksa who was young enough to be their granddaughter and barely nodded their way in the hall?
Those two paragraphs flowed forth in about three minutes. Looking back over them reminded me that I didn’t always look at things from the other person’s point of view, and it doesn’t always fit smoothly into the flow of a story when I do. Perhaps the fact that I was writing to convey a specific message wove things together naturally here. For those times when it doesn't come naturally, exercises like Matilda’s are especially valuable.

Write now: take five minutes (I spent even less on the two paragraphs I wrote) and write a mini story like the one above with all three points of view — then, now and other. Let them flow naturally and add a dash of description while you are at it. Make it a mini-essay.


Karen Walker said...

Lovely example of what Matilda is talking about. Hey Sharon, how are you? Feels like it's been awhile since we connected.

Sharon Lippincott said...

I guess that's what Matilda was talking about. It's always a challenge to balance examining elements with looking at the whole cloth of a story.

Matilda Butler said...

Sharon: Thanks for mentioning our blog on women's memoirs. I appreciate your comments. We try to have a new writing prompt each Tuesday.

Your vignette causes all of us to think about the times we backed away from possible friendships -- friendships that might have meant quite a lot to the other person as well as to us.


Sharon Lippincott said...

You are welcome Matilda. I found that prompt especially juicy.

As for backing away from friendship? Perhaps sometimes. Alas, the idea of friendship didn't even occur to me in that early situation. At that point in life I didn't begin to realize that friendship could cross generations. That was probably due to growing up in Los Alamos, a community virtually devoid of old people. The average age of adults was around 30 when we moved there.