A photo of my hometown, where I grew-up learning to talk to strangers – and believe me, there are some awesome strangers in Oxford! Photo by Emma Davies.
I’ve already written once about my passion for talking with strangers but, following two months living in a new country where the natives have a great talent for this skill, I thought I’d muse some more.
I’m not sure whether it’s my propensity to talk to strangers that has made me a writer or whether being a writer makes me more open to talking to strangers, but I do know that the two walk have walked hand in hand through my life ever since I can remember.
Modern life makes ordinary people invisible. One of my jobs as a writer is to make those lovely, ordinary, everyday people, come to life.
The shiny people of this world don’t interest me much: the rich and famous and beautiful and super talented. I guess that’s my own particular bias as I’m sure they’re worth exploring too. But as far as I’m concerned, they get enough airtime already.
I like to write about the old man who takes the same walk through the woods every day, which he used to walk with his late wife. The taxi driver who refuses to use GPS. The barista who dreams of writing music for films. The single mum trying to make a good fist of raising her little boy. The refugee who lives in a park a million miles from home. The old lady who comes into the same coffee shop every day to knit. The people like you and me: people who carry a few extra pounds, who never quite make it to the gym often enough, who dream about what they would do if they had a few more pennies in the bank, who have bad hair days and bad skin days and always wish they could be a slightly better version of themselves. People who make mistakes. Who get hurt. Who have fleeting moments of success that they feed on for years. Because those are the people who populate contemporary life: and so those are the people who populate my fiction too.
In my experience, strangers are better material for fiction than family, friends or lovers. I’ve never been able to identify with those writers who feel able to use their nearest and dearest in their fiction. I see it as a dangerous thing to do on two levels. First, you risk losing that person’s love or trust: exposure and betrayal are close kin. Second, it’s dangerous artistically. When we know someone too well, we don’t allow our imaginations to work hard enough to bring them across in a three dimensional way on the page.
Strangers, however, are an altogether different matter. They give us glimmers, nuggets of stories, a prop, a word and from that we can weave great fictions.
My stories are full of brief encounters with strangers that have spun themselves out into full-blown characters.
You would never been able to trace these characters back to their origins – only I have the pleasure of that inside knowledge – but strangers inspired them all the same, and I am deeply grateful for that.
Different cultures have different approaches to speaking to strangers. Some seek strangers out (as I’m finding in my new home in America); some will do anything to sidestep even making eye contact. I understand that these customs are deep rooted. But I do believe that stepping forward and meeting strangers, even for a second, can deeply enrich our lives and our creativity – and, idealistically speaking, make our world a little bit better too by breaking down prejudice.
When thinking about this post I listened to a TED talk by Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, about her obsession with talking to strangers – I was glad to had found a fellow addict! She talked about ‘using our senses rather than our fears’ when encountering strangers. When we use our fears, she suggests, we resort to categories: black / white / male / female / old / young / stranger / friend. When we use our senses, we pay attention to our perceptions on a plane that doesn’t take into account these categories.
A well-known writing technique is to engage the five senses: when we write a scene or craft a character, we should think about sound and sight and smell and touch and taste. Some scenes will require some of these senses more than others. But it’s a good reminder that we are sensory beings and that if we want our readers to inhabit our worlds we need to make them come to life through all the senses. This also prevents our writing from being cliched and one-dimensional. If we are specific in our rendering of the senses, really specific, we avoid stereotypes. The same is true of meeting strangers. When we really look and listen and smell and touch and taste (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically), the people in front of us, we are open to them in a new way and our experience of them is transformed.
My photographer friend, Emma Davies, brings the senses to life for us in her pictures – and always has her own senses on full alert.
Kio Stark‘s made this wonderful statement:
When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your life.
And what is fiction other than ‘beautiful interruptions’ – between characters and their life situations. My fiction is full of such interruptions of unexpected encounters. One of the most special of such encounters happens in my first novel, What Milo Saw, in which nine year old Milo befriends a Syrian refugee in the kitchens of his grandma’s nursing home.
Milo reveals a truth about children, which I have witnessed time and again in my little girl too: their lines between the strange and the familiar are still blurred – and so they are open to the world.
I suppose that is why I love to include children in my fiction – because they create the most wonderful opportunities for narrative interruptions.
Of course, there are times when we can get it wrong. When we start a conversation with a stranger and realise they don’t want to be talked to or when we try to make contact with someone who reacts badly. But even those encounters are telling and enriching for the writer – and for us as human beings. We learn about the wide spectrum of human life and how some people either prefer to remain invisible (please forgive me if you are one of those) or who have been burnt by life’s encounters and need to put up a shield in case they get hurt again. But most of the time, when I’ve stepped forward and made a comment or asked a question or started a conversation, I have been richly rewarded – and has so has my fiction.