I once sat next to a young Pakistani woman for a long red-eye ﬂight. She had been living in the U.S. for a couple of years, and had many interesting insights on the diﬀerences between our two cultures.
I was especially intrigued by the details of how her arranged marriage had come about, and her belief that this practice was so much more successful than our current U.S. tradition of love matches. I was able to gain a new understanding of a custom that had always seemed unfathomable to me—someone else being allowed to choose one’s life partner—by sharing an insider’s view of that life path.
And the whole discussion gave me many intriguing insights not only into her culture, but into my own as well. Writing also allows us this kind of insider’s peek into another life. Every time we create a character, we do our best to imagine what it would be like to travel inside that existence. We immerse ourselves as deeply as we can into a borrowed consciousness, hoping to make the character seem authentic to readers.
One of my writing prompts helps young writers practice this ability to step inside another existence. First I ask students: “If you could be transformed into any animal, what animal would you choose?” Then I ask them to write about what they imagine life would be like as that animal. How would it feel to be able to ﬂy? To swim on the ocean bottom? To run with the pack, or to slither on desert sands?
I ask them to imagine that they have experienced a kind of metamorphosis; that they are living inside another creature’s existence.
Very often I ﬁnd that when they return from this journey of the imagination, they bring back new insights into their own lives as well.