Thoughts on Writing: Who is the Eye Behind the Microscope? (Or: Who is the “I” Behind the Microscope?)

The title of a writing workshop I recently taught was Microscope Vs. Telescope. As a writer or reader, you can think of description as a lens focused on a topic. And the topic – who or what the story is about – is usually obvious. A masterful writer, though, makes us think not only about what the lens is focusing on, but the character on the other side of that lens. What can we tell about the character whose perspective we’re following? In what direction does this character choose to point the microscope? What details does this person notice? And what can we learn about the character from the way the way he or she focuses on those details? Here are four excerpts from writers who do an especially good job showing the “I” behind the microscope.

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her. We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson.”—Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
“He’ll let you finish his sandwiches and sentences and sunscreen and listen so attentively to the details of your day that, like your personal biographer, he’ll remember more about your life than you will. If this portrait sounds skewed, it is. There are many ways to tell a story, and if I’ve learned anything as a therapist, it’s that most people are what therapists call “unreliable narrators.” That’s not to say that they purposely mislead. It’s more that every story has multiple threads, and they tend to leave out the strands that don’t jibe with their perspectives. Most of what patients tell me is absolutely true— from their current points of view. Ask about somebody’s spouse while they’re both still in love, then ask about that same spouse post-divorce, and each time, you’ll get only half the story. What you just heard about Boyfriend? That was the good half. And now for the bad….”—Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
“Even after studying several books with names like Mad Dog Lists the Most Athletic Sport Truths, the most I could say about baseball was that you could get up during a game to go get snacks and then run into someone you hadn’t seen in a long time, talk to him, hit it off, share your hopes and dreams, decide to start a life together, walk down the aisle after a reasonable courtship, give birth to a son, watch that son grow into a man you could be proud of, and then go back to your seat and nothing would have changed. Possibly someone would have one or two more balls.”—Alexandra Petri, A Field Guide to Awkward Silences
“Seth and his co-workers were born imperialists, and so would pillage the city for tiny, cash-only ramen places or Thai restaurants that had a secret, ultra-authentic room behind the kitchen where the staff also ate and where they would insist on eating, too. They were the best and the only and the highest and the chef was trained in Beirut as a prisoner of war and the waitstaff had to get scuba training so that they could understand what it meant to touch pleasure and the restaurant itself used to be a church or a secret meeting place for the Illuminati or a Tibetan monastery that only the hottest, most favored Tibetans were invited to. It was not just about owning the city. It was about owning everything beneath and above and behind the city, too. Finance guys were the f***ing worst.”—Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman is in Trouble

Want to try this with your own writing? Here’s a prompt to get you started.

Fill in the blanks of the sentence below. Then, use it as your first line. See what happens.

“Suddenly, I saw how _________ looked to _________.”

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