Innocent Characters

I had a great conversation on Tuesday with the journalist-turned-psychotherapist Kim Schneiderman. Kim’s the author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life, a handy little book that helps people apply traditional story arcs to their own life so that they might see themselves as the heroes of their narrative rather than the victims or villains. One of the very useful tricks Kim employs is writing our story in the third person. Instead of writing, “I lost my job and didn’t know what to do.” I would write, “He lost his job and didn’t know what to do.” All at once that person on the page is a character, not me, allowing me to view him from the necessary authorial distance. I thought of Kim’s technique this morning as I worked on a scene in a memoir I’m rewriting. This particular scene wasn’t going well. I knew it wasn’t going well because of how lousy I felt. The more I wrote, the worse I felt, until I knew it was time to get out before I declared the whole book a waste my time.

After I’d exercised and showered and generally calmed down, it occurred to me that when I’m telling the story I truly wish to tell, I view the Bill on the page as a character. No matter what this Bill does or has done to him, he is innocent. When he is allowed to be innocent, so are all his friends and supposed foes. On the other hand, when I’m telling my story, which is really what you would call my ego’s story, no one is innocent. Now I am either justifying what I did or apologizing for it. It never feels good to tell this story, though sometimes it is the only story I can hear.

By and by I find my way back to innocence. It is easy for me to confuse innocence for the vulnerability of childhood, when all that I didn’t know about the engine of the world seemed to leave me unguarded against a vague but constant threat. That the threat never materialized did not dim its power. The strangest part of growing up is finding that same intact innocence within a storm of knowledge, and ready at last to tell a story about the world I’ve always known.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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