“Such was the family I was born into. There was this cock-sparrow, my father, now a commercial traveller, dressy and expansive with optimism, walking in and out of jobs with the bumptiousness of a god.”
This is the bouncy beginning to the Cab at the Door, a memoir by V.S. Pritchett, long considered a premiere English stylist. Witty, warm, prolific, and sweetly irreverent, V.S. always casts a compassionate eye on his subjects, whether his ne’er-do-well father or a philandering boss.
One of the keys to his success is his openness to experience — a wonderful quality that also enabled him to forget himself in the act of writing. Here’s how he describes this: “Throwing something of oneself away is a way of becoming, for the moment, other people and I have always thought that unselfing oneself, speaking for others, justifying those who cannot speak, giving importance to the fact that they live, is especially the privilege of the storyteller, and even the critic — who is also an artist.”
So often when we write, we are overly concerned about finding our voice and making sure that it is distinctive. And yet here, Pritchett seems to be suggesting that we need to let go of at least part of ourselves in order to be able to fully inhabit the people or characters we want to write about.
But how exactly, does one go about “unselfing oneself” so that we can slip into the skin of someone else? Looking at the writing of V.S himself, I would say that it takes humor, keen observation, strong emotional intelligence, and a large dose of humility. “Humility” is defined as the “quality or state of being humble” — not proud or haughty. Pritchett always seems mildly surprised and bemused about his skill as a writer. He earned his degree in the “School of Hard Knocks” — and he always brought great empathy to his character portrayals. Let’s borrow a leaf from his book and take our subjects seriously, but not ourselves. Write on!