Monday, September 1

After the party

My high school graduating class had a party at our house last night. Not that many of us were there--which was disappointing--but the ones who came wanted to be there. We laughed, we talked,we remembered--with varying degrees of accuracy--class trips and other events. We didn't sing the school song or hash over old grievances. What we did--and maybe I'm looking at this with my usual Pollyanna-ness--was celebrate our differences.

Ours was a small class from a small school in a small community in the Midwest. Those of us who married town kids still groan because the town school fan sections used to sing "Farmer in the Dell" to us at ballgames. (They did sing a different tune when we won the games. We were probably less than forgiving in vengeance.)

What we are, in way too many books, is a stereotype.

We are the ones who use poor grammar, wear consistent and dirty blue collars, and vote a straight ticket without studying the issues. We don't further our educations, have our teeth cleaned at regular intervals, or dress well. The women are waitresses, housewives, or Success Stories who became well-paid, well-educated professionals in spite of their humble beginnings. The men drink too much, smoke cigarettes, and resent that life has kept them in the quagmire of...er...smallness.

Do I sound bitter? Probably. But as I watched the microcosm of our class last night, I wondered why so many stereotypes are rampant in books. In the 30  people at our house, there were teachers, a museum curator, several professionals, several farmers, a musician. There were some housewives, too, and factory workers and a man who retired from the railroad and is a personal trainer. There was a quilt artist extraordinaire, a pastor, and a romance writer--oh, that's me. I have no idea how much our incomes vary, but we live all over the country and although many of us are now retired, we're all self-sufficient. A few love living in large cities, some of us remain comfortable where we grew up, still others follow their wanderlust in every direction. We've all had happiness, pain, and illness. Some have borne losses that tear down the walls of stereotypes because no one can stand them. No one.

These people, in all their glorious differences, are the ones who populate our stories. Why must we draw lines around where and how we grew up and say This is what Hoosiers are like or this is what everyone from Oklahoma is like or this is how all rich kids (poor kids, city kids, country kids) think?

I'm who I am, and I'm nothing like some of my classmates and a lot like others. Shouldn't this be the way we write people?




20 comments:

  1. I have lived all over this country....which was in keeping with my family's penchant for moving on. I've lived in cities and small towns and in the country. I've lived in the south, the east, the west and the midwest. I've lived in poor neighborhoods and upscale ones. I haven't really noticed that people are all that much different....or rather, they are alike in their differences. As you say, you simply can't slot individuals based on where they are from.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right, and it's something I wish either marketing or editing or someone would get a clue about.

      Delete
  2. Nice post. I'm from a small town too. Boaz Missouri. Never had a class reunion, although I do run into people from time to time. Would love to know what people have done with their lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's fun to catch up. It's as though, like siblings, even though we may not see each other for years at a stretch, there are people out there who know what you know and feel what you feel because they were there.

      Delete
  3. I've lived in different countries, and different towns and cities. I've lived in small prairie farming communities and large metropolitian cities. In some ways people are very similiar. Most of us want to care for our families, work, get paid. But we all have different hopes, dreams and Idiosyncrasies that add to the flavour of humanity.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Marlow, and I don't think we do it in demographic clusters. :-) Thanks for coming by!

      Delete
  4. Great post, Liz! Yes, this is the way we should write people--like real life. My high school class is having a 60th birthday party at the end of the month--as it happens, I'm one of the oldest and I'll turn 61 the day before the event. We were part of a large metropolitan high school (678 in my graduating class), but now, some 40-odd years later, the 50 or so of us who will attend the party are all connected. I'm not sure if it's actually because we all graduated together--I think it has more to do with all of us needing to hold on to a little of the history we share in a world that has gotten so much bigger since 1972...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're right, Nan, and the losses bring us closer, too, as sad as that is.

      Delete
  5. Great post. I think people put others in boxes because it allows the put-ee a sense of control in a crazy world. When we define others using a set of criteria, it's easier to know how to deal with them. "Oh, I've seen that before - I know what will happen next." "That guy's a joker, no need to take him seriously." Writers often give their readers clues about their characters in the same way. We miss so much when we close our minds and hearts to the world around us. Thanks for the reminder to honor diversity.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ashantay. I literally put down a book recently because the waitress who was waiting on the protagonist couple flirted openly with the man and ignored the woman. I swear this wasn't in waitress-training school, but I'll bet I've read the same thing 100 times!

      Delete
  6. Great post! My class had 18 in it and one class reunion. No one had changed since HS. I doubt I'll do another, although I'm being pushed to organize one by a guy from my class. I think stereotypes exist b/c there is some truth to them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That makes me sad. I don't know that we changed, but we grew up. "Mean girls" aren't mean anymore; they're grandmothers. Jocks aren't jocks anymore; they play golf and watch TV. No one talks about money or even jobs. I'm sure there is some truth to stereotypes, but that doesn't make me like them and I think their overuse in books makes for boring reading. (Go ahead, Liz, let us know how you feel! )

      Delete
  7. So true about stereotypes and overuse in all kinds of communication--books as well as advertising. It's such a shortcut to transmit a specific intention. As for changing--for the first few reunions of my class, the members seemed to fall back into their 'roles' in high school. In later years, however, many of the people did demonstrate changes. It was interesting to note the few who still remained true to their high school 'type.' Good, thoughtful post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol. There are a few, aren't there, that have you snorting laughter with your old best friend in the restroom because, really, haven't they evolved at all? But maybe we've also become more accepting of our differences, too.

      Delete
  8. You seem to have struck a resonating chord in a lot of us, Liz. I was born and raised in a small Midwest town, and while I now live in a much larger place and have traveled extensively, I am most comfortable where I am. I went to my 40th Class Reunion last year. It was fascinating to see the changes - or lack thereof - in those who came. Even so, those who never left town had changed. They were hardly the stereotypic hayseeds that seem to populate fiction. Those who moved away were scattered across the globe, not just America. It was a slice of rampant diversity, not stereotypes. I would agree that the use of stereotypes provides automatic frames of reference for a reader, but more than that, it perpetuates unfortunate labels that are no longer true and relevant. As writers, we all need to push that envelope with our editors and readers. How else will our work reflect our reality?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, oh yes, you said it so much better than I could! That's EXACTLY what I mean. Thank you so much for coming by.

      Delete
    2. Interesting conversation, Liz. I loved reading the insights of people from all around the country and from such varied walks of life.

      And I heartily agree with Valley's assessment.

      Delete
    3. She said it well, didn't she? Thanks for coming by, Margie.

      Delete
  9. Believe me, I know how you feel about stereotypes. I love stories that don't "type cast" their characters.

    ReplyDelete