Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Being There

-- Lynn York
A slow-healing sprained ankle kept me inside yesterday, out of the first snowfall in North Carolina in a few years, and alas, away from the center of the world, the National Mall in Washington, DC. I spent the day in front of the television, soaking in the images and the words from the inauguration of President Barak Obama.

I had really wanted to be there, and of course, so did at least 2 million other people. Throughout the day, when the cameras would pan across the bundled, shivering crowds, my beloved would try to console me. “See,” he’d say. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t go? You’d be out there in the cold, looking at the backs of peoples’ heads.”

He was right. I would have hated the cold, the waiting, the walking for hours. And it was lovely to sit in my den and be able to watch the gathering dignitaries, to see Obama’s face as he delivered his address. It was great to have a bird’s eye view of the enormous crowd on the mall. However, as always, I was not satisfied by the wide shot, by the homogeny of network coverage, by an event viewed only through the filter of others.

For me, unfiltered, individual experience is the only way to go. As a writer, I really have nothing else. I must always rely on the odd detail, the telling scrap of conversation, the boring and beautiful events that unfold in my presence. It is this data that allows me to write. I do not exactly transcribe my life; my work also involves imagining, putting myself in other places and times. However, television images and expert commentary rarely aid in this process. I find most of my material when I am actually “on the ground,” reporting or reinventing my own experience.

For this reason, I advise my writing students to be cautious about source material for their work. Other fiction, historians’ accounts, and certainly, television shows and movies, are not good sources for fiction. I urge my students to go to firsthand accounts, original documents, and oral histories for their research. And I tell them, that even if they are working on a story set during World War II, they need to find something of themselves and their own experience for the story.

I am convinced that if I had been standing on the mall yesterday with the rest of the 2 million, that I would have hundreds of small stories to tell this morning. Instead, I saw mostly what everyone else saw.

Late last night, trolling the internet, I found some consolation, an archive of firsthand images. CNN, through some wild technical application, created a collage of photographs taken at the moment that Barak Obama took the oath of office ( ). Through some wizardry, they collected photos taken by individuals from many vantage points on the site, to create one large photo that can be explored dynamically. One amazing event from thousands of points of view. Thousands of stories in the making.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is

1 comment:

Carol said...

I would so love to be one of your students.........