Want to be a better writer? Then be a better person.
I came across this statement years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I only wish I could remember who said it. There’s no short cut with this one, but being a better person is great advice if you want to be a better writer.
But what exactly does it mean?
It doesn’t really mean be a nicer person, conforming to some moral code, doing good deeds. Although, perhaps, being nicer might be a happy byproduct. What it means here is increasing our understanding and insight, exploiting our capacity for self-awareness and reflection. It means paying attention – being curious about the friends, loved ones, colleagues and strangers that share our lives, taking the time to understand their needs, motives, intentions and idiosyncrasies. It means asking questions, and listening properly to the answers. It means noticing the particularities that make a person unique.
You know that perennial writing tip that suggests we go sit in a cafe and watch the people around us? It’s a bit like that, only we give it more time and commitment.
Being a better person involves turning the spotlight on ourselves too.
The best way to develop our understanding of others is to shine a light into the shadows of the self – exploring what makes us tick and what pushes our buttons. This inevitably means being prepared to acknowledge and confront our flaws and limitations – all the knotty, gristly bits that we prefer to keep hidden from view.
Easier said than done. It takes effort (what exactly this looks like differs from person to person – for me it involves writing morning pages, mindfulness, sporadic bouts of therapy, reading Brene Brown) to become more conscious, more awake, more honest and open. And time. Patience. Commitment. Crucially, it requires us to embrace vulnerability. Seeing our imperfections, our weaknesses, the ways we hurt others and the things we run from takes courage, but it’s the bedrock of understanding. It doesn’t happen overnight. Some might even suggest it’s a life’s work. But any work we choose to do in this area will improve our writing.
How can it really make a difference?
In its simplest terms it makes a difference because great stories are all about great characters. We might choose to work with archetypes, or embrace cliche for our own purposes, but if we want to create original characters that scream authenticity and keep our readers enthralled then we need to see beyond our character’s most obvious traits. We need to see the vulnerability behind the violence, or the strength behind the passivity. We need to look for the surprises in their personality and actions, and the hidden meaning in the things they say. This is about peeling back the layers to see what lies beneath.
The better acquainted we are with our own imperfections the better we’ll be at muddying the waters when writing. And muddy the waters we must. The temptation can be to create only heroes from our protagonists. But our characters are human beings. They are necessarily flawed and imperfect – just as we are.
Are we comfortable with our darker side?
The more we deny the darker side of our selves the more likely we are to create two dimensional characters on the page. For some stories we might be happy to do just that but, as writers, we need the ability to go deeper if we choose.
If there are parts of life we find embarrassing, emotions we find shameful or situations we refuse to face then we limit our scope as writers because there will be so much that we avoid in our writing. We also risk treating some of our characters unfairly, or sounding smug, patronising or judgemental. Or our writing just ends up a little too neat – it’s kind of appealing on one level, but deeply unsatisfying on another.
Can I really write that?
The writing that works its way beneath a reader’s skin is the writing that speaks the truth. It is the writing that says the unsayable. It’s a mother that regrets motherhood. A lovable, upstanding character with racist thoughts bubbling beneath the surface. It’s the father that wakes, sexually excited, appalled, from a dream about his teenage daughter. It is, in other words, the writing that reaches right through shame and out the other side.
We might not wish to write about such things, and that’s fine. Not all writing needs to be so visceral. But, chances are, whatever we’re writing about, there will at some point be a moment when we stop at the end of a paragraph and think can I really write that? What will my daughter / mother / partner / friend say? What will people think of that? What will people think of me because I’ve written that?
Being a better person boosts our bravery in those moments – because being a better person is about seeing the world as it is rather than how we would like it to be. And, also, it is about seeing all of us (not just our antagonists) as flawed and imperfect.