This morning at breakfast, a large group—too large to sit at a single table—came into the restaurant. Half of them sat at one table, and the other half took an adjacent table, which was behind where Cathy and I were sitting. I really didn’t take much notice of them until I heard a man’s voice behind me say, “Aaron, do you want to sit over here?” Mind you, at this time, I had no way of knowing whether the Aaron being addressed was a male or a female. “Aaron,” the man said, “do you want to be a little girl? Come sit with the men.”
I turned my head to my right and saw the table where Aaron, a boy of about eight or nine, was sitting with two women and three girls. From the pained look on his face, I deduced that Aaron was quite content to sit where he was, but now, goaded by the man at the table behind me, he was standing up and moving to that table to join the men.
At some point, minutes later, I heard the man say, “You can’t sit here. This table is for the guys.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young girl from Aaron’s original table. She’d obviously come over to “the men’s table,” to say something, but had been rebuffed by this man who was so intent on reinforcing sexist boundaries. His message was clear. To be masculine you had to sit with the men, whose space wasn’t to be invaded by the women. For Aaron to make that walk—obviously, he’d consciously or unconsciously decided that being teased by the man was enough to make him leave the company he so obviously preferred—he had to forsake some true part of himself, that part that preferred the company of women to that of men. He had to suppress this essential part of his identity.
I balk at the ways some people find to force their ideas of identity on others, to tell them who they should be and what they can and cannot do. It happens on a small scale in subtle ways as it did this morning in the restaurant—imagine the message transmitted to Aaron and the girl who tried to approach him—and it happens on a larger scale as it is now when politicians try to legislate reproductive rights. In either case, there’s a desire to dictate and to control, to say you must be like me, you must fit the same mold, occupy the same role, assume the same identity—the one I’ve determined to be proper. Stolen, of course, is the individual’s right to determine.
Which finally leads me to something to do with writing. When we create characters, we have to resist the urge to fit them into predetermined roles. We have to leave them room for individual expression. We have to delight in the surprises they offer us with actions and words we don’t expect. We have to let them be who they’ll be. Only then, can we determine whether their leaps take us to surprising levels of truth in the narrative or whether we’ve unknowingly forced them to do or say things outside the realm of believability. Unlike the man who taunted Aaron and denied the girl, writers have to be willing to allow their characters freedom of choice. Only then can we take our narratives somewhere memorable. Only then can we dramatize the richness of lives full of contradictions, irrepressible assertions, and resonant truths—lives lived according to the truest parts of oneself, parts we may not even know until they arrive, breaking through the boundaries or escaping the roles that others have tried to limit us to. Lives of splendor. Lives of significance and consequence. Lives of freedom. To create those lives is the writer’s greatest gift.