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> mind matters
October 28, 2002
I donít know everything there is to know about anyone.
In a course on writing fiction I learned that characters are more poignant and realistic when you include unusual details. Instead of saying that Tina sells insurance in Boston, say that sheís a failed New Mexican balloonist who on a dare followed a political candidate to New England and later married him. Similarly, itís better to introduce people by announcing memorable details: I met her at speed dating. Sheís a marathon bicyclist. Sheís the one who designed those yogurt lids with detachable spoons.
I know a woman who makes jewelry in a converted garage. Her home town just installed a fifth traffic light, she once traveled Europe with only a backpack, and today she lives on the ocean with her family. Her college car was named Myrtle, and one hand is partially numb. Her husband owns a sailboat.
I know a man who sells computer services from home. He was near Chernobyl when it melted down but miraculously avoided thyroid cancer. He plays blues guitar, founded a social organization for Jews, and lost 80 pounds in one year. His mother plays double bass in an orchestra.
We canít know everything about a person, so we remember the parts that to us are interesting or relevant. In other words, we know people based only on what we want to know, or enjoy knowing. This allows us to construct some fascinating connections. We like the unusual: near misses, painful ironies, awkward coincidences, wise truisms, and brushes with fame and failure. There are musicians who found fame only after death, and scientists who stumbled onto their greatest discoveries by accident. Our favorite stories include anything thatís just so weird, unusual, funny, or like ourselves that the tale itself is more vivid than the person.
Itís not the person but rather our impression of the person that matters. This may be one reason why itís hard for us to internalize the tragedy of multiple deaths or the joy of multiple achievements. There are too many details to build good impressions.
The obituaries of many famous people are written in advance. The New York Times, for example, has hundreds and perhaps thousands of advanced obituaries sitting in unmarked drawers. Some obit writers even interview their subjects. Their goal is to capture the essence of the person described, yet limit themselves to only a few paragraphs. Even a published biography, which runs hundreds of pages, omits much.
I like to believe that my life is worth more than a few paragraphs. Still, I think of the many people I know and wonder how many words Iíd need to describe them. So many details would never get past an editor, like how they drive and where they eat. Published obituaries are often limited to a physical description, any relevant ancestral history, an abbreviated career path, two or three highlights, a perfunctory list of familial survivors, and maybe a good quote.
This morning at breakfast I sat with three others who occasionally spoke about themselves. Throughout, my portraits of them changed, my impressions evolved and deepened. Though I will never capture the whole truth of who they are, the portraits in my imagination are no less real.
People as we remember them are the artworks of our minds.
Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin
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