For our writing assignment the other week, Dr Rogers asked us to describe someone we know in 500 words or less, and to do it from the outside, rather than by going inside the person’s head, as he put it.
I chose my youngest brother. I’ve lived with him for all of his ten years, and I love him fiercely. I know him. But how do I effectively communicate that knowledge to someone who has never met him? And—what’s harder—how do I communicate it from what can be seen of him on the outside, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions, rather than taking the lazy way out and saying “x makes him happy, y makes him sad”?
Guided by Dr Roger’s prompt questions, I had to think about concrete facts: what does Bro 5 do when I get him up in the morning? What is his daily routine? How does he talk? It stretched me to have to describe someone that way, but I ended up with a result that I was happy with—as was Dr Rogers, to my relief.
Of course, there was no way I could fully convey who Bro 5 is in 500 words or less. And even I, well as I know him, don’t know the essence of him. What vast unknowns we are to each other after all! Each of us with a lifetime of dearest hopes, darkest secrets, and most dreadful fears. In my absorption with the pressing demands of my own selfhood, I often forget that other selves are, as Dr Rogers reminded us, just as complex, full of what he described as “incongruities”—incongruities which show us to be individuals rather than stereotypes.
Last week, I took the train to visit a friend. As I sat engrossed in 84 Charing Cross Road, a man popped out from the seat behind me. He was perhaps in his early sixties, with a florescent yellow top and a big bushy beard. I think he got on the train with a bike. “May I see the front of your book?” he asked. “I’ve been reading it over your shoulder.” I showed him my book and told him a little about it, then he handed me his. “What do you think of that?” he asked. It was a thick enough book, silver-coloured, and I think it was about someone going on a quest to find out what snow really was. Or something like that. Whatever it was, he was enjoying it, but he was also curious enough about books in general to read over a stranger’s shoulder and then strike up a conversation with her.
If I’d been asked to pick a likely book enthusiast from amongst my fellow passengers, I would not have picked my bearded friend. A love of books wouldn’t have fitted in the stereotype I’d have boxed him into based on a cursory glance, and yet it formed a part of his character, making him more than just a bearded old guy on a bike.
It’s the incongruities, Dr Rogers said, that make people what they are.
There are no boring people.
Or, to put it more eloquently:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!