Friday, June 29, 2012

Framing the Picture

“Sometimes it’s easier to say things to a stranger.”

I’ve thought a lot about this simple statement since someone said it to me a few months ago.  As it turns out, the someone is no longer a stranger but a friend, and when I recently brought up something from a conversation the day he made that comment, he replied that he didn’t remember saying what I brought up.  Maybe he now regrets telling me what he did; I don't know. I guess when we talk to a person we think we’ll never see again, it doesn’t much matter how much we divulge and it doesn’t much matter if we remember what we say.  A stranger won’t be around to bring it up again.  Perhaps the appeal of talking to a stranger, however, is more than the lack of accountability we have to him or her. A stranger may also provide a more objective response to our subjective story-telling.  A stranger may look into our frame and see things we’ve missed.  We sit within the frame, but a stranger looks in from outside.   A scene can look different from outside and within the frame.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  With a stranger we may tell our tale with more honesty than we might to someone with greater stakes in the story - someone who can bring it up again, call our bluff, or hold us accountable for something we’ve said.   We don’t always want to be reminded, called out, or held accountable.  Even so, maybe a stranger can help us realize a more accurate picture within our frame.   

I have been thinking a lot about story framing lately for a number of reasons.  I’ve been thinking about it since I sat in a courtroom a few weeks ago and listened as prosecution and defense framed their versions of the same events, trying to convince the jury that the picture they created was most accurate.  I have been thinking about framing as I have been editing some of my writing for competitions.  Looking at the stories I am telling, I am certainly trying to lead my reader to the same conclusions I have made.  I want the reader firmly residing in the frame I’ve created.  I don’t know that I want or need to do that with all of my writing, but in the pieces I chose to edit, I definitely want the reader to come sit with me in my frame.  I have been thinking about framing as I talk to different people about my travels and my upcoming plans.  My story frame changes depending on who I am talking to.  I choose to say more to some, less to others.   The basic picture I paint for everyone is the same, but in some I add details, colors, and nuances that don’t seem so important in others.  The size of the frame may expand or shrink, depending on my audience.  My stories are like Monet’s Water Lilies series, essentially the same, but also slightly different. 

Of course, the problems come when a person fills frames with drastically different pictures of the same reality, particularly when none of the pictures actually resemble reality.  It is problematic when instead of presenting Water Lilies to all, a person presents one person with a Monet and another with a Rembrandt still life, when the reality looks more like Picasso’s Guernica. There is no easy way to reconcile the images.  Several friends have recently told me stories of infidelities, lies, and deception, horrible painful stories that have destroyed marriages and friendships.   What makes the stories so awful is that those who were deceived were presented with lovely soothing images, the pastels of Monet lulling them into comfort, before they walked into the frame of Guernica.  I don’t understand how someone can carry out a Monet/Rembrandt/Picasso deception, though I know it happens.  I have certainly dealt with deception in my life.  I see how it affects both my present framing and the way I view pictures I’m shown.  Thankfully, I’ve never stepped into any frame quite so jarring as Guernica. Sure, I’ve walked into other Picasso-esque scenes or something like a tamer DalĂ­ painting, but nothing so excruciating as the stories I’ve recently heard.  I hope I never do.  And now, even though I’ve brought it up, I’m going to leave the contrasting frame idea.  Maybe that will be a theme for another day.

I am thankful that, even when the frame I’m in doesn’t encase the most beautiful or peaceful scene, I have friends who help me see the picture with an objectivity similar to what a stranger might offer.  My best friend is particularly adept at this.  When she sees the picture I am creating stray too far from reality, she helps me reframe or repaint it, while still allowing my own interpretation to come through. When I only see the dark colors, she helps me to add faint, but ever-present, flecks of light.  Though she is definitely not a stranger, she helps me to see the totality of the picture as a stranger might.  There are times I don’t necessarily want to see it that way, but ultimately I’m grateful that she does this, so I can adjust my pictures little by little like the Water Lilies series, rather than with a stark contrast that might occur if my painting strays too far from the actual scene.    

As I think about how the same scenario can be framed differently by different framers- in legal disputes, in political debates (like the recent Supreme Court health care decision), in personal conflicts - I wonder if we wouldn’t all benefit from stepping outside our frame to try to view things the way a stranger does, looking from the outside in, maybe even leaving our own frame entirely, turning our back to it, and stepping into someone else’s frame.   Might we return to our own frame with fresh eyes?  Isn’t that what we all need sometimes- a new perspective?  Would we be able to hold ourselves more accountable if we were willing to look at things the way a stranger does?  Even if we have good friends to help us interpret our world, maybe we need a conversation with a stranger every now and then to remind us that our frame isn’t the only one and doesn’t encase the whole picture. 

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