Writing Advice

Theory of Mind (and why your perspective is a unique snowflake)


We went out to dinner the other day with Ben’s parents and as we were standing outside of the restaurant some guy passed us and told me he loved my bag (because my bag is pretty awesome—see above photo for proof).  My mother-in-law looked surprised and stared at the guy as he walked away, then looked at me like I should be shocked and impressed.  I smiled (because it’s always nice to both get a compliment and make someone smile), then shrugged because frankly that happens to me all the time; it’s a part of my personal landscape.  People constantly approach me on the street about my clothes, they ask to take pictures, chase me down to ask where I got my shoes, hell I’ve even had people jump out of a car to snap a pic with me.  I’m like a Toronto landmark, sometimes the only hint of colour for miles.  But the point here isn’t my attention grabbing style…it’s the fact that my mother-in-law was surprised by my experiences out in the world.  I experience the world in a completely different way than she does—and that’s fascinating. 

When we’re young, it takes some time but we eventually develop something called theory of mind.  Here’s the Wikipedia definition (which is way better than mine would be):

“Theory of mind (often abbreviated “ToM”) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.”

Now you may think that theory of mind is something you’ve always had (because who could imagine their lives without it?) but it’s actually something we have to develop and learn.  It’s not innate.  Which would explain why we sometimes struggle with it.  I know I do.  Sometimes I expect that someone will just get what I’m saying or how I’m acting without having to explain myself.  Sometimes I expect the world to just fall in line with my mentality and I wonder why it doesn’t.  It’s a problem of intellectual laziness to be sure, but it’s also (in those moments) not using my theory of mind.  Forgetting that other people are well…different from me; that they see the world from a completely different perspective, that they can’t always understand my perspective just as I can’t always understand theirs.

So that leads me to writing.  

For a long time I struggled with my most recent book (What it means to be a man) because it is partially auto-biographical.  It’s based on my (sex) life and my relationship with Ben and when I finished writing it (then re-writing it) I hated it because I was positive everyone would be bored with hearing my own, personal, internal voice.  I have to live with it, I hear my own voice in my head every day.  I struggled and generally reviled the book…then I remembered theory of mind.  Just because I have to listen to my own voice yammer on and tell the same stories of my life over and over, doesn’t mean everyone else has.  To people who don’t know me (or at least to people who aren’t close enough to me to have heard all of my sex stories and know every detail of my relationship with Ben) this story is completely unique.  It’s a perspective they’ve never heard before.  It’s my mother-in-law standing on the street in shock as a man talks to me about my backpack.  

So what’s the point?

All of our personal stories are unique fucking snowflakes.  

All of our perspectives are our own, completely and totally.  No one else lives in our minds, so to the world our stories are fresh and new.  

I used to worry that people would be bored of my stories and that I absolutely had to make up brand new ones about characters I never knew in order to be interesting.  But now every time that fear kicks me in the gut, I kick it right back with theory of mind.




You’re a unique snowflake dammit so go forth and tell your stories with confidence!

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