(This article originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Oct./Nov. 2014)
"Everything at a distance turns into poetry; distant mountains, distant people, distant events; all become Romantic." Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772 – 1802)
The window, as motif, has a long, varied, and important history in the arts. Many writers will think of E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View in which a vista, an external journey, presages the protagonist Lucy Honeychurch’s more important internal journey. When Lucy and her cousin arrive in Italy, they initially receive a room facing a courtyard: an enclosure symbolic of culturally repressive Edwardian England. Ultimately they get a new room overlooking the Arno. In order for Lucy to become fully actualized, her gaze must encompass that sinuous river, that sensuous Italy, thus literally and figuratively turning her back on England and its restrictions.
All this results from a mere glance out of a window!
The Origin of the Window in Art
The window as metaphor pre-dates the rise of western literature. According to the catalogue of a 2011 art exhibition, “Rooms With a View,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vermeer, as early as 1657, painted “A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window.” In this iconic painting, the girl’s focus is on the letter, not the window, through which light pours. Vermeer suggests the presence of the world outside the window, yet portrays his model as being self-contained as an insect trapped in amber.
Then, in the 1820s, the window undergoes an artistic re-imagining. The German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, in “Woman at a Window,” transforms the window into metaphor by shifting the focus to an external view. The painting shows the woman’s back, her unseen face angled toward the window. She stares outside, her vision elongated. In the near distance, she observes masts of sailboats on the River Elbe. Additionally, and more importantly, because of the woman’s outward gaze, the painting also evokes landscapes and events – invisible distances – as far as the imagination can “see.” Freidrich’s painting suggests that a landscape when viewed from a window takes on more significance because a personal, internal perspective is projected upon it. The viewer of the landscape dreams, yearns, roams in her imagination. Even unseen landscapes are compelling when framed by the vagaries of the human heart.
In short, seen through a window, the view is more than mere landscape. The reaction it evokes in the viewer is subjectivized by the frame of a window. A relationship exists among the woman, the window, and the world. This relationship makes us wonder: What does it mean to stare out windows? How does it feel to be on the inside looking out? Why is the person looking out the window? Is the woman yearning for something just beyond her line of vision? A painting of a person gazing out a window sets up the juxtaposition of ordinary life against a backdrop, seen or unseen, of events in the larger world.
A Brief Glance through Fictional and Poetic Windows
But back to literature, and to another iconic, metaphoric window, which appears in 1914. In James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” when the protagonist Gabriel turns his gaze from observing his stifled image in a mirror to look, instead, out a window, it’s clear that his marriage to Gretta is over. In the mirror, his vision is trapped. He sees himself as a “pitiable fatuous fellow” (220): As he had been fantasizing about Gretta, she had been thinking about an old love, Michael Furey, who had, in effect, died for her. As Gabriel now looks out the bedroom window – to a broader vista and vision – he, like the figure in the Friedrich painting, imagines a world far beyond what is literally visible:
"The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was…all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain…farther westward…. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." (223 – 224)
In this metaphorical universe he envisions a life away from his wife. He realizes he can never love Gretta as deeply as she loved Michael Furey. The window through which Gabriel gazes is an important mechanism for the story’s epiphany. Ironically, and crucially, the more Gabriel envisions the world outside the window, the more his interior state is revealed to the reader.
Given poetry’s reliance on the luminosity of images that embody heightened emotional states, it’s no surprise that the window, as portal to the emotions, is also a staple in verse. The poet Jane Hirshfield published an important article examining this tradition in the February, 2011, issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. She discusses work by such poets as Leonard Nathan, Philip Larkin, and Emily Dickinson. According to Hirshfield, “The Pupil,” by Donald Justice, for one example, is a poem that, on the face of it, is about a young boy at a piano lesson. In just one parenthetical line, however, an all-important window is introduced: “(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home)” (23). Without that line, in which the image of a window is implicit, the poem would be insular. As Hirschfield writes:
"The inclusion of traffic and labor remind that art-making is luxury, not birthright. Many listen only to the grinding sounds of truck engines…. The inclusion of this line reminds us of the cost at which the boy’s search for beauty – and by extension, the adult poet’s life – have been won." (24)
The image of “traffic” is crucial here in another sense. Both in terms of painting and literature, two worlds are in play: the confined interior world, and the sprawling exterior world. Tension in a work of art frequently occurs at the point of intersection between these two worlds. A person looking outward, physically or metaphorically, isn’t just gazing; she is putting her stamp upon the world, “trafficking” with it, as it were. She is remaking the world in her own image.
Gazing through Memoir’s Window
I discovered the window as motif in creative nonfiction serendipitously. One afternoon a few years ago, I received a copy of the book jacket for my memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction. It featured an abstract figure of a girl gazing out a window. My first thought was: Where did that come from? Well, it came from the book, of course. Early in the narrative, the narrator (the “I”), stares longingly out of a window in a rehab center watching rush-hour traffic, mothers and fathers driving home for family dinners. I wanted to be in one of those cars in order to find a safe, authentic family for myself. As a writer, I had employed this core image without, however, considering it in any sort of critical, extra-textual way. In other words, the use of a window as an image of emotional projection preceded my awareness of what I was doing – or what the window meant.
From here, I looked for windows in every memoir I read. For example, in Robb Forman Dew’s The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out, windows symbolically convey the narrator’s fear of “what the neighbors will think” when they find out her son is gay. At the same time that the narrator herself emotionally reconciles to the son’s sudden disclosure, she worries whether her family in general, and the son in particular, will be shunned. Shortly after the son reveals his sexual orientation to his mother, the narrator finds herself
"…wander[ing] around the house and look[ing] out of the windows while trying to
fend off an overwhelming sense of impending doom and an image of my own
family’s sudden isolation within our own town. From the upstairs front hall window I gazed out at the street, at my neighbors’ houses." (loc 235 – 236)
Later, the narrator reflects upon her son’s past while contemplating his future.
"…I don’t think that I have ever felt more desolate. I looked out the window and knew that all the people Stephen had counted on for approval – all, of course, but his parents – might now regard him as a threat, an aberration, a stranger, rather than as a much-liked friend, a trusted neighbor, even something of a star in our small sphere." (loc 272 – 273)
The window serves as metaphor for exposure: what will people think once they “look inside” and see the son is gay? The narrator believes she can keep her son safe inside the house, within the family, but what will happen to him outside those windows?
My thinking about windows as motif sharpened even more upon hearing the phrase “navel gazing” (omphaloskepsis) thrown around by various wrong-headed critics who disparage the whole genre of memoir with that term. At the same time, I realized a writer could risk navel gazing in creative nonfiction if all she does is gaze as if in a mirror. Mirrors, real or metaphoric, are unable to provide context for the images they reflect: everything is inside the frame; nothing is outside. Windows, on the other hand – real, imagined, suggested, or all three – require writers to avoid that narcissistic gaze.
Suppose you stare out of a darkened, night-time window. What do you see? Initially, you observe a faint, gauzy reflection of yourself. The longer you gaze, your eyes grow accustomed to the dark. You begin to see what is outside – moon, stars, outlines of trees – more clearly. The next morning, in daylight, you again see the world, this time vibrant with color, landscapes in sharp focus: the first snow of winter; a taxi screeching to a stop on the street below your Manhattan apartment; a haze over Los Angeles. As you continue to stand by the window, ask yourself: What else do I see? How far does your imagination carry you beyond what is literally observed? How do you fit, metaphorically, in that landscape?
In other words, when writing, consider examining your persona framed by a window through which you observe a world both near and far, always alive with external action and images. In the writing process, even if we start with a preoccupation of self, we proceed, at some point, to a deeper understanding of the context in which we live, the myriad forces that have combined to create this narrator whose story is entwined with the world. When it comes to memoir, many kinds of landscapes, both physical and metaphorical, exist outside any given window. We are a part of the landscape; the landscape is a part of us. Literary memoir, despite the critics, is usually the opposite of navel gazing.
For example, your personal story may be framed by spirituality or a sense of place as are Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; Barbara Hurd’s Entering the Stones: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark; and Kurt Caswell’s Inside Passage. Or, perhaps your story sheds light on sexuality and gender as do Barrie Jean Borich’s My Lesbian Husband and Hilda Raz’s and Aaron Raz Link’s What Becomes You. Perhaps your story reflects the landscape of your tribe, where the personal is twined with that of a culture, such as Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican or Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America. Others, such as Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journal and A. Manette Ansay’s Limbo are set against a terrain of physical illness. Yet others such as Mindy Lewis’s Life Inside and Joy Castro’s The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses focus on various forms of physical, mental, and religious incarceration. Karen Salyer McElmurray, in Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, considers the societal issue of adoption, while Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, in Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life, examines identity and loss in terms of how our culture addresses death. In When Katie Wakes, Connie May Fowler explores domestic violence in a society that struggles to acknowledge this reality. In all these books, a face in a window gazes out of the writer’s house (house as a Jungian symbol for the self), so that not only does the writer have a view of the world, the world has a view of the writer.
In Persian Girls, for example, Nahid Rachlin writes of literal windows in which to explore the otherness of the outside world. After being raised by an aunt, Rachlin is kidnapped, at the age of nine, by her father, whom she loathes. In her new home, several scenes show the young Rachlin looking out the window. What does she see? A clash of culture and tradition: the Shah, still in power, “allows” women to appear in public without covering their heads or faces. Yet girls’ and women’s lives are still dictated by men. There is her own kidnapping. Arranged marriages proliferate. Looking out the window Rachlin sees the turmoil, yes, but she also imagines and longs for a faraway landscape where she’ll be free to dictate her own future. She wants to travel to America and study at the university. Eventually she does. This is foreshadowed by a line of dialogue early in the memoir: “’See, when all the doors are shut on you, God opens a window,’ Aunt Khadijeh said” (21). Rachlin longs both to see, and be seen.
Not all windows are domestic. For example, in Rigoberto González’s Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, González dreads time spent alone with his father during a bus trip back to Mexico for a visit.
The father asks: "‘Do you remember your mother?’"
"I hate it when my father comes at me like that. Invoking the memory of my mother is the fastest way to make me raise my defenses.
"‘Of course,’ I say, slightly indignant. I immediately turn my entire body toward the window, my reflection superimposed on the passing desert and a row of wooden shacks with clothes on the lines that look like party decorations the day after the party.
"‘You must never forget her,’ he says.
"I see my chance. ‘You mean like you did,’ I say.” (22 – 23)
The following exchange appears later in the scene:
"My father tries to chat again but I’m not in the mood, so I simply rest my head against the window and close my eyes. I want to remove my glasses, but without them I can’t see the view through the window each time I open my eyes, so I leave them on my face. With the vibration of the bus the frames keep tapping against the glass." (23 – 24)
Here, the bus window, framing the passing landscape, contextualizes González’s uneasy relationship with a family and a culture that has largely been left behind. González has already, physically, left Mexico, but this return visit home with his father – the conversation itself seemingly superimposed upon the window and the passing Mexican landscape – captures the various cultures and situations in which he feels torn in terms of family, ethnicity, education, sexuality.
But the loss of home doesn’t come easily. His longing to always remember his mother as well as the place in which he was raised is so strong that it becomes a physical sensation: His eyeglass frames, themselves miniature windows, vibrate against the bus window. Yet it is only by looking out that González is able to seek a freer, a more emotionally compatible future. The book is not only about how González sees his different worlds, but how these worlds see a gay man.
Another window image that entices the reader comes from Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, in which the narrator, Flynn, tries to keep track of – and save – his sometimes homeless, alcoholic father. Here, toward the end of the memoir, Flynn visits his father’s rundown apartment:
"My father answers the door with a huge gash above his eye—swollen, bruised. Here we go. I mention the gash, unsure I want to know the details. This? he barks, pointing to his eye. I got nailed. But you should see those two cocksuckers, tried to rob me, I’m stepping on their motherfuckin’ heads. Off to Charles Street jail, they’re in for twenty years. I nod, look at the last of the day’s sunlight coming through the ivy that fills his three windows with green. Cartoons on tv, coffee gone cold. How does he keep those plants so healthy? You don’t want any vodka? he asks, hoisting the jug. Fine, it’s evil shit. A room without corners, without a place to sit. After a few minutes of listening to this latest installment in his endless unraveling his room begins to feel especially suffocating, cramped." (337)
The fading sunlight coming through the window seemingly offers the last ray of hope for the father in this “suffocating” and “cramped” room. The ivy in the window blooms: a sign of vitality in an otherwise dying apartment – a self in pieces. The sunlight manages to keep the plants unaccountably healthy. Why not the father, as well? Perhaps because it is only the son who ultimately does the looking, the son who, even in the last of the day’s light seen through the window, envisions a larger truth about survival than the father, a person seemingly determined to committing a long, slow, alcoholic suicide.
Suppose, on the other hand, these author-narrators chose only to observe themselves, their lives, in a self-reflecting mirror? Would Rachlin or González fail, then, to find a place where self-actualization is possible? Would Flynn, without his sunlit window, be trapped in his father’s world?
In memoirs on almost any topic, the personal and particular, if superimposed upon a wider world, metaphorically encompass universal social, political, and cultural issues. According to Vivian Gornick, “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom – or rather the movement toward it – that counts” (14).
A Universal View
What the memoirist encounters in the act of writing are new possibilities about how to understand one’s life. Not just the original, factual experience is set forth; rather, the original experience becomes connected to other moments in time and place. The challenge for a writer of memoir is to have the broadest possible worldview (call it the “big-picture window”), even as the interiority of a persona becomes more specific. It is the power of specificity, the narrator’s personal, emotional stance, which allows a work of art to make the paradoxical leap from the specific to the universal by recognizing and understanding the importance of these connections.
But why windows? While it’s clear that a mirror fosters self-absorption, what about, say, a door as motif in order to enhance a world view? What is it about windows – and not doors – which speak to writers and artists, which compel a writer to portray a narrator staring out of one?
A door, after all, allows the narrator a path out of a dilemma. Here’s a way to escape! However, once the protagonist extricates herself from an uncomfortable, confusing, or terrifying situation, then the dramatic moment lessens, as do the heightened perceptions we feel at such critical moments. Or maybe doors don’t work because they are solid. Blank. In other words, an open door offers the text no tension; a closed door does not engender longing. A door does not offer the universality of imagination or emotion.
A window, on the other hand, combines a sense of longing with a sense of entrapment: How do I get out? A narrator gazing out a window is tantalizing because a window frames a question: Do I want to be inside or outside? If outside, where must I journey? Down the street or around the corner? To a distant land? To a broader imagination that contains a multitude of possibilities? What do I see, smell, hear outside the window? Does the narrator resolve the feelings of longing and entrapment, or simply live with them? The stereotypical image of someone escaping through a window to elope, say, or embark upon a forbidden adventure has resonance precisely because we understand that the person is not so much exiting a room as entering into a vision they have of what their life should be. A person clambering out through a window is trying to embody the imagination with his/her action, the way writers try to embody the imagination in words.
The frame of a window is temporal, not just physical. A window can be a portal to the past and to – if not the future – then a possible future, or many possible futures, as is the case in The Family Heart, Persian Girls, and Butterfly Boy. Windows allow us to time travel. Rarely do we find meaning in the present: instead, it is found in the past, which we may endlessly relive, examine, reflect upon, or try to revise. The past and the future are universal landscapes upon which we can project ourselves from one window after another. The emotionally naked gaze, especially one staring out a window, suggests a past and a future, shaped by a daydreamer’s logic. As Ted Kooser writes in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, “Always allow your imagination to flow back and forth in this energy as you deepen your work. Windows, after all, even allow us to flow back and forth in time” (31). In short, the image of a window – and especially someone at a window – resonates because of its inherently rich psychological tension.
That “rich psychological tension” is captured perfectly by Robert Vivian in the meditative essay “Ghost Hallway” from his book The Least Cricket of Evening. In that essay, Vivian writes of living in a house haunted not by spirits looking for retribution or closure, exactly, but by the lingering psychic energy of lives that once shared the same physical space he now occupies. It is an essay about empathy, about making a connection with invisible others whose existence can still be dimly perceived, like words erased to make way for new thoughts.
"Some days I look out the same window and sense her next to me or looking over my shoulder. She wraps her ghost fingers around mine, like a saintly dead aunt. Everything is okay. Everything is fine. I am supposed to believe her somehow." (5)
Vivian believes her, and we believe the writer, because he is engaging in what Keats described through his richly evocative (if poorly described) phrase “negative capability.” What did the ghost see? She saw what Vivian sees now. Not the same trees and houses, but the same landscape of longing and desire we all see. As “Ghost Hallway” makes abundantly clear, the vistas we see through literary windows can be large, even when the piece of writing in which they are set is small.
What Is Seen Inside the Window By Looking Out
Whatever your current writing project, consider what your narrator would see if you, the author, provide or construct a window in any given scene. Then ask yourself: How would this exteriority reflect the narrator’s interiority? For example, consider the different contexts, the different kind of narrator, who might appear in one of these three scenes: 1) a man sits by a window and sees a water sprinkler come on at exactly 5 p.m. every afternoon all summer; 2) a woman, sleepless, focuses on the sound of a car with a bad muffler rumbling down a midnight street; 3) a child, sitting breathlessly, watches a feral cat stalk a fledgling bird. Three windows. Three entirely different situations. How does this outer world reflect the interiority of these three different narrators? The saying goes that we don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.
A literary writer invariably uses exterior details to metaphorically express the condition of her otherwise invisible interior state. To quote Mark Doty in an interview in The Writer’s Chronicle (referring to an aphorism of Roethke’s), he says: “Good description is always revealing the emotional and intellectual concerns of the person doing the looking; we can’t help but project ourselves into things” (19). To emphasize his point, Doty discusses a collection of paintings and drawings by Jennifer Bartlett called In the Garden, which is
"composed of three hundred views of the same small landscape…. Bartlett is relishing the way that her mood and disposition, or the particular aesthetic questions she’s worrying over that day, or an idea about the world or about the nature of art can express itself in her representation of that same pool and fountain and group of trees. The eye looking at the world discovers itself, and the paradox is that the harder and more precisely you look and name, the more you reveal yourself as observer. Maybe the surest way to know the self is not through looking in the mirror but going out for a walk." (19)
Or by looking out a window.
But what happens when there are no windows, when the narrator refuses to look outside? Or, more psychically damaging, what happens if the narrator refuses to look inside? Lucy Grealy, who writes of a severe facial deformity, explores this in an essay, “Mirrorings,” that appears in The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction:
"There was a long period of time, almost a year, during which I never looked in a mirror. It wasn’t easy, for I’d never suspected just how omnipresent are our own images. I began by merely avoiding mirrors, but by the end of the year I found myself with an acute knowledge of the reflected image, its numerous tricks and wiles, how it can spring up at any moment: a glass tabletop, a well-polished door handle, a darkened window, a pair of sunglasses, a restaurant’s otherwise magnificent brass-plated coffee machine sitting innocently by the cash register." (209)
Grealy’s deformity leads her initially to empathize with people outside the mainstream – such as rock’n’rollers, transvestites – people seeking to create a different person from the one whose reflection might otherwise catch them unaware. They wear masks to avoid confronting the selves they prefer not to be. Sadly for Grealy, who ultimately commits suicide, most of the surfaces in which she sees herself reflected are opaque; there is not a world beyond them in which she can envision her true self existing.
In creative nonfiction, unlike poetry or fiction, the window is particularly crucial since it is a portal through which a “conversation” can be established between author and reader. According to Judith Kitchen, readers of creative nonfiction “read with a kind of alternative reality in mind – our own. We move rapidly from the text to our own experience and back again, testing what is said against what we know, what is recounted against what we have experienced, what someone else thinks against what we think about the same subject” (119).
In other words, as readers of creative nonfiction, we’re comparing the life we spy through the author’s window with the life we live within our own homes, with our own windows. A constant dialogue runs between author and reader as readers assess and re-assess their own lives based on what they learn about the author’s life. As much as the narrator looks out of a window, at the same time, the reader not only looks out with the observer, but also looks in, thus able to more fully understand and “see” the interiority of the narrator…as well as the universality of shared emotion. To paraphrase memoirist and essayist Patricia Hampl: by reading your life, I will better understand my own.
As an individual, it’s impossible to live every life, fight every war, battle every illness, belong to every tribe, believe in every religion. For readers, the only way we come close to experiencing the entirety of the house is by gazing into, peeking inside, other people’s houses, other people’s metaphoric windows. And, of course, as writers, we must describe what we see outside our own rooms, with our own windows, with our own fulsome views.
Dew, Robb Forman. The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out. Kindle edition. New York:
Ballantine Books, 1995.
Doty, Mark. Interview with Jona Colson. The Writer’s Chronicle September 2011
Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
Forster, E. M. A Room with a View. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.
González, Rigoberto. Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Grealy, Lucy. “Mirrorings.” The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present. Eds. Lex Williford and Michael Martone. New York: Touchstone, 2007. 209 – 219.
Hirshfield, Jane. “Close Reading: Windows.” The Writer’s Chronicle February 2011: 22 – 30.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” The Dubliners. New York: The Modern Library, 1969. 175 – 224.
Kitchen, Judith. “The Art of Digression.” Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction.
Kooser, Ted. The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Museum of Modern Art. “Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.” April 5 – July 4, 2011:
Rachlin, Nahid. Persian Girls. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006.
Vivian, Robert. The Least Cricket of Evening. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2011.