MFA Nugget: A Window on Your Narrator

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: “Literary writers embrace exterior details to convey our interiority.” So said Sue William Silverman in the opening lecture of my latest MFA residency here with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The award-winning Silverman–author of Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, and Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir–walked a packed room in the ornate College Hall Chapel through the use of windows in painting, poetry and prose. From Vermeer to Joyce, she emphasized the unique role a window can play as a tool for storytelling and metaphor.

The incomparable Sue William Silverman of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A window allows the narrator to see a broader world–a world she longs for, or fears, or even simply imagines–but by choosing which details the narrator sees through that window, we as readers gain insight onto the character herself. Don’t just list whatever may be outside the window, Silverman said: “Slant the details to invoke the narrator’s interior.”

Much is said of the symbolism of a door, but she said unlike a window, a door suggests the possibility of escape, and of course can be solid, not allowing a new perspective. A window also is reflective, allowing the author to contrast the outside and inside, the world beyond and the narrator’s own reflection. So if you find yourself struggling to properly convey the interior of your narrator, she said–whether in poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction–“give him or her a window.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. My goal is to have you here with me for the next ten days!

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

18 Responses to “MFA Nugget: A Window on Your Narrator”

  1. As a writer of allegorical fiction, the use of symbolism fascinates me. Thanks for this gem.

  2. Great nugget. It occurs to me I just used a window in a scene in my novel, this tip makes me realize I can go back and make even better use of it. Glad you’re blogging the residency!

    • You know, Charlotte, I believe Sue mentioned how in one use of a window in Love Sick she didn’t fully realize her use of the window as metaphor upon first draft; it seems often the answer isn’t plotting it out in advance, but recognizing what your subconscious has presented and working with it.

      As a low-res residency veteran yourself, you know it’s tempting to blow this off for other activities (sleep!), so your gratitude is appreciated!

  3. I loved this lecture. For some reason, I never really gave much thought to the window as metaphor in my own writing.
    Sue did mention how she didn’t realize her use of windows as metaphor in her book until after it was published. Interesting how you can’t see things in the moment, but can recognize it later.

    Kris Underwood (intern at Hunger Mountain)

    • Yes, you’re right. I mentioned in a comment above she didn’t see it on first pass, but I hadn’t fully registered that it wasn’t until after publication! I suspect her subconscious was intentional with it even if she wasn’t consciously using the metaphor.

  4. Individual nuggets of writing wisdom sometimes clarify personal writing better than a mountainous quarry of nuggets. Thanks for sharing your experience, Patrick.

  5. Looking forward to reading this when the kids are back in school! Glad to have stumbled on your site via. Cheryl Craige.

    thanks, kate

  6. Hi, Patrick, thanks so much for posting about my lecture! I enjoyed reading your post as well as the comments! Also, of course, I truly enjoyed seeing you at the residency!


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