Rules For Writing - Rule #7 - Thou Shalt Create Compassionately

To state the obvious: writers are fallible human beings who bring to their art a unique and special brand of contagious insanity. It’s why as readers we follow certain writers – we fall in love with their foibles, their prejudices, their obsessions. Their brand of crazy becomes our brand of crazy in an intimate symbiosis that can rival a love affair. (And when it goes bad...look out.)

Less obvious: Creative writers are not reporters. In art there is not just reflection but also aspiration, and because of this, writers consciously or unconsciously attempt to accomplish two near-impossible feats at the same time --

Show the world as it is

Show the world as we want it to be

Regardless of genre, a writer has to make aesthetic choices that are inherently ‘real.’ Real to the drama, real to the characters, real to the setting. This doesn’t mean realism—the genre—this means internal realism, realism that follows the conventions of the established narrative, realism that reflects the truth of the characters. A couple arguing about finances at the kitchen sink or a couple arguing about how best to cast the spell of Machaca against the ancient evil known as Booger Man must ring true to the reader or the illusion fails and the reader is lost to us.

Fine. Internal realism is a difficult task, but it’s doable. It makes sense.

More difficult then is how to show the world as we want it to be. This could be setting based—the idyllic farm in a verdant valley—this could be character based—we really want these two characters to end up together—this could be plot-based—we decide not to kill a character who by narrative rights should die. At some juncture what separates the creative writers from the journalists is this. We side-step reality and imagine. We play God.

But this same imaginative aspect that makes creative writing so fabulous is also fraught with complication. Let’s focus on character and say as the author, you’re a vegan, but your work presents you with an unrepentant meat-lover. Or let’s focus on setting and say that you’re a conservative who believes the government has far too much presence in our lives, and you really want to idealize the life on a small farm, but you just can’t ignore how subsidies keep many farms afloat. If you don’t do your job as a writer, the danger is that your personal views will interfere with the work. Fiction will become a political treatise, a personal manifesto. These have their place, but neither is art.

The way into this mess, and the way to make art from it, is through compassion. Not weak, I’m OK you’re OK apologetic acceptance, but the more difficult exercise of finding where in the other person or situation exist our own touch-points, the places where we can connect and understand. We will find not just commonality but also an appreciation and respect for the differences.

Lest you think I’m arguing that authors check their individuality at the doors of their writing rooms, I’m not. Your particular brand of nuttiness will still shine through your works even when you practice compassionate creating. Your voice will still sound throughout. This can’t be helped. But to serve the work, to reflect the world as it is AND as we wish it to be, we have to open ourselves, be willing to learn and to listen, and be ready to take on ideas and concepts that are frightening and foreign to us. 

As in life, so in art.