Our Personal Lenses, Aly Hughes

Aly Hughes, Guest Blogger

Our Personal Lenses

Growing up, I was not only the youngest sibling, but also the only female child, the only short child, and the only white child in a multi-racial family. I like to think all of the teasing I was subject to gave me a jovial and good natured temperament. Instead of turning me bitter, it helped me to find pleasure in the little things in life.

There are times in my life when somebody asks me a question, and I pause to reflect. How did I get to this point in my life? It can be a friend asking if I want to go to the bar. Am I already 21? Or an aunt asking what I’m going to do now that I’m out of college. Has it really been four years? Or even my brother, asking me where my boyfriend and I are going to move after he graduates. When did I get a serious boyfriend?

In my many pensive moods, I also wonder about people who are close to me, and how vastly different our lives are. My eldest brother, now 26, has never experienced living on his own and still lives with my parents. My other brother, 23, moved over 1,000 miles away and spent a year living in a rented living room. Some of my friends are married, others have kids, and some have never had a boyfriend.

We all have different experiences in life. It’s what gives each of us a unique perspective on things.

A favorite professor of mine once described it as looking at life through a personal lens. She put her hands to her head, blocking her peripheral vision, and told us that those were her blinders. Her limited vision was caused by her personal experiences. As blinders on a race horse, they kept her within her own frames. Acting as a colored lens in which she viewed life.

She was raised in a small town in Iowa with less than 2,000 people. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Her family was conservative, white, and Christian. She had never even seen a non-white person in the flesh until she went to college. When she moved away her lens expanded. Experiences piled on, and widened her vision. But still, the blinders would never fully go away. She would always view the world with a uniquely colored lens, developed by her upbringing, sex/gender, race, etc.

As people, and as writers, our views are limited. A part of us is woven into every theme, character, and story we write, because it’s what we know. The difficult part is writing believably outside of our blinders.

It makes us fret about writing characters of a different sex, sexuality, age, race, culture, or religion. We second guess ourselves on whether they’re too cardboard or stereotyped.

Maybe that’s why intentionally or not, we take experiences and traits from other people to put into our stories. And perhaps it’s why most of us care to be observant. Whether it’s through people watching, striking up conversations with strangers, or just filing other people’s stories away in our minds, we’re generally observant on an interpersonal level. It’s why writers interview their characters, create character profiles, and explore background scenes that will never take place in the actual story. These are our ways of looking beyond our blinders, in an attempt to understand perspectives different from our own.

But before you try to completely escape your field of vision, remember: What limits your perspective, expands another’s.

Do you know what blinders you have on?


4 thoughts on “Our Personal Lenses, Aly Hughes

  1. As a writer and a people-lover, this post captured me. Especially the idea of trying to write outside our blinders. I wrote a chapter for a novel I’ve been working on for all of college now and it was from the perspective of a 17yo boy. But obviously, I’ve never been there. It may not have worked amazingly well, but I found that it was because I steered too far from what I knew about 17yo boys, afraid of accidental stereotyping. So maybe there is a fine line and maybe our blinders do expand someone else’s vision.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I think writing outside our experiences just means there will be a lot of revisions, and hopefully a beta-reader who HAS been there and can give some insightful critiques. 🙂

      Best of luck on your novel!

  2. I think it’s also important to remember that no group is monolithic. No 17-year-old boy knows all the experiences of all 17-year-old boys, so your character might have nothing to do with one reader’s experiences, even if they fall into the same “categories.” Some characters will connect with some readers and some won’t, and that’s fine.

    But I do think it’s important to write beyond our own experiences, to include all of those characters who aren’t like us. We’ve been talking about this over at T.S. Bazelli’s blog (http://bit.ly/I4P5gf), and the comments have gone in some interesting directions. As someone put it over there, start by writing characters first, and then the categories they fall into second, not the categories first.

    I was just watching the movie Orlando, and the main character, after 200 years of being male, abruptly becomes female. She regards herself in the mirror and then says (first to herself and then to the camera), “Same person. No difference. Just a different sex.” Of course, she gets _treated_ very differently now that she’s female, but that’s a different question. 🙂

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