Someone Else’s Shoes

Actor Michael Chiklis

Actor Michael Chiklis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vince Savino, played by Michael Chiklis, is the mobster who runs the Savoy hotel and casino on the “Vegas” TV series. In the show’s 12/18/12 episode, “Estinto”, Savino is upset over the $10,000+ theft, and who wouldn’t be. Convinced it’s an inside job, Savino gets the Sheriff to send one of his deputies to investigate. The deputy, Dixon, goes undercover as a waiter and eventually exposes the crook, saving Savino from threat-filled criticism, if not worse, from the mob boss he answers to back home. Grateful he won’t disappear beneath the desert’s landscape, Savino takes Dixon to the penthouse overlooking the Vegas strip.

“Whose room is this?” Dixon asks, awed by its size and opulence.

Savino says it’s his for the night – a sincere thanks for a job well done, as well as a life saved.

Walking over to the window, Dixon pulls back the curtain and looks out over the strip. It’s a room, a suite, practically the size of a house, commanding an expansive view.

“From up here everything looks a lot different,” he tells Savino.

If we take a moment to step out of the center of our universe, we, too, will find that everything does look different from another’s point of view.

When we create a fictional story, our characters become full-fledged people only if we tromp around in their shoes for a while. Get to know who they are in the course of an ordinary day, or in the case of science fiction, the course of a not-so-ordinary day. Seeing through their eyes allows up to develop and understand their backgrounds, experience, relationships to each other, and make connections to their impact on the crux of the piece.

Where is this character coming from? What are his/her motivations, goals, fears? How has he/she dealt with problems as they’ve arisen, helped (or not) others, courted disaster, or averted engagement in living a full life to keep bad things from happening? It’s the purposeful development of these backstories that gets readers to care about, hate, root for, or become frustrated with the individuals you’ve created, encouraging empathy that allows readers to fall into the story without realizing it through identification with the characters.

Is the process the same for creative nonfiction, and memoir in particular, where first-person narrative reigns? Memoir captures and illuminates (if it’s done well) the truth of a moment in time. Your truth. You take center stage. Like an archaeological dig, your writing digs into and around the roots, then dissects the seeds in an effort to understand how this or that could have happened.

Take one particular moment. You are all there, processing the event but viewing the scene from different vantage points. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends at your side. All bearing witness at the same time and place – each composing disparate stories from elements with equal surface weights.

How does this happen? It’s not a function of isolation, certainly, but one of various people and their complex relationships, varying ages, positions in the family, socio-economic status, educational history, emotional makeup – the list goes on and on. We interpret someone with his/her back to us as shutting us out, someone who doesn’t visit often as uncaring, someone who doesn’t remember a discussion we had as disinterested or self-centered. We accuse people of intentional acts of neglect or kindness, not considering the motivations behind either, that might deem our responses incorrect.

Which rendition is correct? What validates one person’s memories and renders another’s a pack of lies?

It seems to me that trying on the other shoes on the shelf is the only way to capture as much of the truth of any moment as is possible – even if it’s only your perspective that makes it to the page. But that perspective must be supported by at least subliminal recognitions of the internal struggles of others whose points of view enrich the text by informing it, even in an unconscious way. Both the things we say, and those we don’t, inform our actions, direct our choice of words, and bring the points we are examining into high relief in order to make sense of them.  A consciousness of other points of view demonstrates how we “came to know what {we} couldn’t have known” by what David Huddle refers to as speculative imagination, which, though we’re talking about nonfiction, is an important part of our thought processes whatever the genre and affect how and what we recall, reshaping it even as we realign the information by the choices we make.

Perspective isn’t something made of concrete. It filters and processes events and people through that which formed it. Choosing one thing or another to serve as our focus – what we see out the window from on high – is a product erected on that foundation.

Two of us are standing in the same place, yet we choose differently what rises to the surface of memory. Maybe more often than we’d like to think, much less admit, bits of information are skewed, misremembered, forgotten, or overshadow the others. Perhaps in blowing random bits out of proportion we minimize something else, losing sight of it – until we start digging around in the mess of our lives searching for that which will bring coherence to what remains.

We fail to recognize how we unconsciously rearrange events in a hierarchy that brings order to chaos. When we try on someone else’s shoes, an alternate schematic develops. Yours versus theirs. Who, then, is the unerring guardian of truth – who, the liar? We can’t be both – regardless of the spin James Frey tried to put on it.

“Estinto,” the title of this episode of Vegas, is an Italian musical term literally meaning “extinguish.” A conductor directs an orchestra to quiet the sound of its notes so they become barely audible, gradually fading to a whisper before disappearing entirely. Yet they continue to support the composition by their subliminal presence beneath it. I suggest that in memoir, the notes we know as family and friends must at least be estinto, as well – barely audible, yet sustaining the coherence of the story, encouraging its theme to achieve prominence.

“The way you see things always depends on where you’re lookin’ from,” Savino tells Dixon. “Tell you what, why don’t you spend a little time here – enjoy the view from on high.”

Things look different to Dixon from where’s he’s standing now. This unexpected vantage point offers a broadened perspective, if he can recognize and take advantage of it.

As we render our moments on the page, let’s enjoy the view from on high but not fail to try on someone else’s shoes first. Our perspective is not the only one that paid for the ones we’re wearing.

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