In fourth grade I was involved in a toxic friendship with two other girls, Maya and Christine. Maya and I were completely in thrall to Christine. I’m not sure why. Christine wasn’t especially interesting or funny, and she certainly wasn’t nice. One point in her favor was that earlier that year she’d gone with her family on a Princess Cruise and seemed to have accumulated a remarkable number of Princess Cruise–themed knickknacks—soap dishes, stress balls, pens, leaking mini-shampoos—which she would bestow upon us one at a time and with great ceremony, like a queen awarding a knighthood or an estate. Every few days Christine would ditch one or the other of us, leaving the excluded girl stricken and bereft, watching the happy pair longingly from across the playground. Every time, somehow, Maya and I were surprised, even though the same thing had been happening once a week for all of fourth grade.
I wonder why Maya and I were so locked into this dynamic, why we didn’t just lose Christine and become best friends ourselves. Certainly we had more in common than either of us had with Christine: we were both bespectacled and bony and shy. I imagine we’d discuss Lois Lowry books and do craft projects and spend afternoons at the planetarium.
When Maya’s mother came to our class to give us an art lesson, I was the one on the outs and therefore regarded Maya’s mother with suspicion, a member of the enemy camp. Doubtless she regarded me the same way, as one of the two girls who, 50 percent of the time, made Maya’s life a living hell.
Our first exercise was to draw a chair. All Maya’s mother’s exercises were, I believe, lifted straight from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She put one of our plastic chairs in the center of the classroom as our model.
I dived right in. I loved art and I was meticulous. I carefully shaped the chair legs and then added minute pencil strokes to indicate the shine in the metal.
I’d been working for a while when someone tapped my page, jerking me out of my absorption. Maya’s mother’s cheek was disturbingly close to mine, the tips of her long, lank hair nearly brushing my arm. “Do you really see four legs?” she asked.
She was right. From where I was sitting, one of the chair’s legs was completely obscured.
“Draw what you see, not what you think you see,” Maya’s mother said, and then she moved on to the next kid.
I was furious. Maya’s mother was picking on me and it wasn’t fair! I was a good drawer! Also, I was sitting in the worst spot! From my tricky perspective, the chair didn’t even look like a chair. It looked distorted and annoying. The back was blocking the other parts. One leg was sticking out of the seat like a can-can dancer’s midkick. The essential chairness was missing. I looked down at my drawing—the tidy four legs, the curved back, the professional-looking shading from some otherworldly light source—and then turned to a new page. Maya’s mother wanted me to draw what I saw before me? Then fine, I would, and she would see how sucky it was!
Draw what you see, not what you think you see.
I discovered the true value of this advice when I began to write seriously. To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas about a chair’s chairness—is the writer’s central responsibility.
It is possible, I suppose, to live by simply replicating received responses to the events around us: joy at this graduation, sadness at that failed relationship. Certainly Hallmark cards and bad television encourage this kind of superficial engagement with the world. But if we examine our own emotional reactions closely and with clear eyes, the truth is usually much more complicated—and more interesting.
The fiction writer must merge with the character on the page and see things clearly though the character’s eyes. The writer must report back—and make the reader see—the chair the character sees, whether or not the fourth leg is visible. When I write a scene—particularly a difficult one—I must ask myself, Am I truly looking at the scene before me, or have I just written what I expect to see here? Is this actually how my character would experience this moment? Have I taken shortcuts? Have I allowed my character to fully experience the complexity of the situation he finds himself in?
Back to that afternoon: the sleepiness of the classroom after lunch, the scratching of thirty pencils, our muffled absorption in the task before us. As I worked, looking from the chair to my page and back again, the anxiety of school and family and this messy friendship receded. Slowly a chair took shape on the paper: not the idea of a chair but a representation of the actual object in the center of the room. For the next twenty minutes, my only job was to draw what I saw. Not to overthink it, not to invent. Just to commit to paper the truth of what was before me.