Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two Men and A Portrait

NOTE: Another little thing from my FDENG-101 class at BYU-I.

Three things stand out to me in William Zinsser’s “Two Men and A Portrait.”

First is this, coming on page two:

“A photograph doesn’t have presence [Tom] said. A person is a living, changing, evolving thing – which is much more exciting.”

The second is this, coming on page three:

“The hardest thing for a painter,” he told me, “is to create what he wants, not what he sees. He can build what he wants out of what he sees. That’s when a painter starts to become an artist – when he starts to deal with what’s in his mind, not just with what he sees. You have to bring something to the party. Students are so eager to record what they see that they don’t think about what they want. Do they want to just copy a photograph? Why would they want to do that? They’ve got the photograph.”

Third is the overall sense that the artist Tom has studied intently the work of other portrait artists as he pursues his own art.

As writers, we have that same obligation – our subjects are living, changing, evolving things that we have to capture as we write. We want to “build what [we] want out of what [we] see,” as Tom says. As I consider my son, the subject of my profile, I want to present him as a living, breathing person who has triumphs and struggles with a social coping disorder – Aspergers Syndrome – not merely as an “aspie,” shorthand for someone who has the disorder. So I think about what I want to accomplish with this profile: I know what he’s going through. What he’ll have to go through. And that he’ll have to continue going through what he’s going through now for the rest of his life.

By way of explanation, those with Aspergers Syndrome have difficulty in social situations. Where for most people it’s natural, for example, to acknowledge happy birthday wishes when Mom brings balloons and a present to school at lunch, our son simply does not understand how to react when those wishes are expressed – Mom had to remind him to say “thanks.” Those with the syndrome – and this is my own explanation – react to social interactions as a hostile threat. The part of the brain that handles “fight or flight” takes over, skipping over the part of the brain that filters a true life-or-death threat from a false one. By the time that part of the brain catches up with the message, the fight-or-flight mechanism is already triggered, so the brain reacts in the only way it can: flight. The reasoning part of the brain can only moderate the flight reaction, not the decision that led to it. To conquer how the brain reacts, we develop coping strategies that help us moderate the “flight” into a positive social reaction, rather than running away. Sometimes, however, that coping mechanism breaks down – something I deal with almost every day, and something he’ll have to deal with the rest of his life.

So that’s the portrait I’m trying to paint in my profile – going deeper than the photograph itself, and getting into the realities of life.

So, here’s your call to action: Read Rich’s post and answer his questions, thinking all the while what you’re going to do to make your portrait of your interviewee come to life in your profile.

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