Exercise 9, Part 2: Being the Stranger

We are down to the last 3 exercises in Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft writing book – home stretch! This one is the second exercise in Chapter 9, which is about indirect narration – and it was a bit daunting. Le Guin instructs us to write from the viewpoint of a character we disagree with or hate or is extremely different from ourselves.

First, the prompt:

“Exercise 9, Part 2: Being the Stranger

Write a narrative of 200-600 words, a scene involving at least two people and some kind of action or event.

Use a single viewpoint character, in either the first person or limited third person, who is involved in the the event. Give us the character’s thoughts and feeling their own words.

The viewpoint character (real or invented) is to be somebody you dislike, or disapprove of, or hate, or feel to be extremely different from yourself.”

Steering the Craft, Page 100-101.

Le Guin cautions against cultural appropriation here – although she does not use that phrase – she suggests that the type of “stranger” she is talking about does not come from another race or culture or nation. The “stranger” she is referring to is a character different than your personally “typical” character: if you tend to write young characters, try writing an old one; if you always write from the viewpoint of a child, write from the viewpoint of a parent; if you prefer to write from the perspective of one gender, try the other one.

She also cautions that if you use a real person or situation, that you don’t try to use this exercise as some sort of therapy or attempt to exorcise personal demons. But for some reason, that warning only served to make me want to see if I could write about a real situation from the perspective of the person I disagreed with and do it convincingly…so here is my attempt:

>> Dr. Landon Lerner searched his email inbox for the address of the right person in the postdoctoral scholar’s office to send his email to – he couldn’t remember exactly who was in charge of such things as terminating funding and positions. The administration had probably sent him an email about this kind of stuff when he’d started his research lab two years ago; there’d been a flurry of “resources for new PIs” emails back then. Too bad, he mused, one of those resources wasn’t someone who fired postdocs for you.

            Landon didn’t want to do this – but what choice did he have? His new postdoc wasn’t working out. She wasn’t working at all, as far as he could tell. She sat at her desk and probably surfed the Internet all day, he didn’t know. What he did know was that she couldn’t seem to get any of her scientific projects off the ground. When he’d finally confronted her two days ago, after almost a year of this, she’d broken down and cried in his office, confessing that she was depressed and struggling so far from home. She was burning through all her savings, paying rent in such a high price housing market and worried constantly. He’d sat in his chair paralyzed, shocked by her breakdown, watching her try to compose herself. He’d reassured her that everything would be okay, that if she wasn’t happy, he would help her find a different position.

            Later that evening, however, he’d realized he would have to cut her loose. He felt sorry for her, yes – and so disappointed. Everything about her application to him, her graduate career, her seminar, her interview, had been so promising. But the whole lab depended on him: his graduate students, his other postdocs, his technician and if this woman dragged them all down with her problems, as relatable as they were, and he didn’t get tenure – ten other people would be on the street.

            He squinted at the screen and found a past email from the postdoc office about hiring procedures for new postdoctoral employees. It was probably the same person who handled terminations. He copied the address over and sent his request to terminate Dr. Sarah Ylanta’s funding and position immediately.

            An hour later she arrived for their meeting. Sarah seemed subdued but composed. He stared out the window as she came in. He didn’t – couldn’t – deal with another breakdown, with more tears. It would take a couple of days for the university bureaucracy to turn off her key card and contact her to come get her final check. He could avoid any further drama, any more guilt, until then.

            “Thank you for being so understanding – I never expected it to turn out this way. I really didn’t.” She said as she sat down.

            He mumbled his assent to this and added, “Hey, look, I know what mental health is all about. I’ve had my struggles too.”

            She nodded and twisted her hands in her lap. “So you said you could help me find something else – which I really appreciate. I’ll start looking immediately, but would it be possible for me to stay in the lab for another month or two – to finish things up, to be able to pay my bills while I look? I can assist with the review paper and the grant that Lance is working on.”

            He smiled. “Absolutely. I said I would help – that is – yeah, that could work. A month is totally fair.” >>

This is an aggregation of several real situations I know about where researchers were fired by their principal investigators (PIs) without notice or warning. The PIs in these situation always seemed to us to be the villains in these cases – I decided that was enough of a stranger for me to work with for Le Guin’s exercise.

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