“I have never found any intellectual excitement more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of these old women at her baking or butter-making…I always felt as if I had actually got inside another person’s skin.”
The “old women” Willa speaks of here are the childhood friends she made who shared their stories of the faraway lands they had abandoned to create new lives in Nebraska. In her long lifetime as a fiction writer, Willa was to inhabit an amazing range of lives: a star-struck teenage boy who runs away to Manhattan, a poor immigrant serving girl, a successful opera singer, a disenchanted professor. The list goes on and on.
Actors and actresses often talk about the freedom they feel in playing characters who are very different from themselves. Each role they take allows them to step into someone else’s life, to get “into their skin.” As Willa said so well, the same is true for us as writers. We are free to roam the world, unbounded by time or space. We can reclaim a forgotten or misunderstood person who actually walked the earth or call someone into being fashioned only from the fabric of our imagination.
What powerful magicians we are in our ability to summon characters from the ether! What can match the thrill of this act of creation? Painting a glorious picture perhaps or composing beautiful music or a crafting a dance.
When I think of the most memorable books I’ve read, What affected me most was feeling that I was living a character’s life right along with them. Reading Jane Eyre again recently, showed me the power of first person narrative as a tool for plunging a reader headlong into a story’s flow. Reading Olive Kitteridge gave me the eerie feeling that I could almost hear Olive’s heart beating. What an amazing feat: to immerse a reader in other lives so completely. And what a star to aim for!