Elizabeth Strout, Writing Without Judgment

Usually I’m thinking of mindfulness and I bring it to writing. Today, I’m thinking of writing and bringing it to mindfulness.

AIPRecently, I saw Elizabeth Strout at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She’s on tour for her latest novel Anything Is Possible. Instead of giving a reading – the book had just come out – Strout was in conversation with the library’s events Assistant Director, Laura Kovacs. Listening to her talk about how she approaches writing and how she feels about her characters, I completely fell in love with her. She is smart, funny and wise.

Kovacs asked Strout how she avoids judgment when presenting her characters. Strout’s response:

It came to me a number of years ago that one of the things I love about writing, is that when I go to the page I suspend judgment. In real life, I’m probably as judgmental as the next person, because that’s how we maneuver through the world. We just become judgmental, which is tiresome. We do and we are and yet, when I go to the page, I just don’t care. I just have an open heart for my characters and so it’s a wonderful thing. It’s very freeing and it allows me to just report on what people are doing. Because you know that’s my job –  to show what we’re all up to or what some of us are up to.

She loves her characters – all of them – and because of this, there is no judgment, there is no melodrama.

Because melodrama is like good or bad. And in what I’m trying to do, I’m not interested in whether they are good or bad. I’m interested in the crevices of all those in-between spaces that most of us live in.

This is what makes Strout’s characters so authentic, so intriguing. Her love of her characters is infectious. It’s why we care so much about Lucy Barton and her mother in My Name is Lucy Barton – two women sitting in a hospital room gossiping about the people of their hometown.Lucy Barton

It got me thinking about how we create the melodramatic in our own lives. For each of us, there are people who strive to create it on a daily basis. Years ago, I decided not to cultivate these relationships. I understood that manufacturing melodrama was unnecessary and exhausting. In living life, enough tragic events will find you. Enjoy peace while you can.

In listening to Strout’s approach to her characters, it strikes me now that a lot of this manufactured melodrama is based on judgment. In each scenario, the creator is judging the others, whether they be co-workers, family or neighbors. It is a battle of good vs. evil, and the creator is always the good, the righteous. There must be winners and losers. Sometimes the co-workers, family or neighbors aren’t even aware they are engaged in the turmoil.

How would our lives change if we were mindful of our inclination to judge others? If we didn’t judge people constantly, wouldn’t we lose the melodrama too? If every action wasn’t in need of being judged as morally good or bad, if we merely viewed what was happening, would we see reality more clearly? Or as Strout says of judging her characters, if she is able “to rise above it and love them . . . I can write without melodrama.”