Swapping Souls

It’s 1973. Four elderly World War I vets lie in a hospital ward. They bond, argue, reminisce, share dreams, discuss death. Donald, the one closest to the window, generously narrates to the others what’s passing by in the outside world.

This is the premise of “The Parade,” a terrific play I saw recently, written by our own Gotham intern Ally Sass. Interestingly, Ally is just 23-years-old.

There’s a time-honored practice of writers conjuring stories about themselves or people similar. It’s great to draw inspiration from our lives, and our stories will always be reflective of our personalities, whether we intend it or not.

But don’t deny yourself the artistic daring of slipping inside the souls of people very different from who you are. It’s necessary if you want to populate your stories with diverse characters. And it gives you the far-reaching empathy that’s a hallmark of the best writers.

You can try it right now. Think of someone you severely dislike, perhaps someone you know or someone you’ve only seen from afar. Then put yourself in the shoes of that person. What does he see? What motivates her? What’s good about him? What moves her to tears? Don’t cheat. Get fully inside that person.

Take it further. Write a short piece from his or her point of view, blocking out your own viewpoint. I’ll wager the darkest villains in literature and history meant well, at least inside their own minds. See if you can pull that off.

Maybe this kind of thinking is helpful these days when countries, families, and friends are so frighteningly divided. It’s good to see each other in a dimensional manner. Then you’re free to return to your dislike of whomever you choose.

In a recent NY Times interview, Barack Obama reveals how books helped him find balance and perspective while he was president. For example, he says the novels of Marilynne Robinson helped him understand the people of Iowa he was meeting. And get this: back when he was a community organizer, Obama wrote short stories. Like Ally, he wrote about people much older than himself, saying:

One story is about an old black pastor who seems to be about to lose his church, his lease is running out and he’s got this loyal woman deacon who is trying to buck him up. Another is about an elderly couple—a white couple in L.A.,—and he’s like in advertising, wrote jingles. And he’s just retired and has gotten cranky. And his wife is trying to convince him that his life is not over.

Barack, now that you’ve got some time, consider a Gotham class.

Ally, maybe a run for president is in your future.

Alex Steele

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