Thursday, May 5, 2011

Compassion and the Writer

It was something I sensed when I first started writing at age eight or nine, but wasn't sure how to put into words. Something I knew when I read Nancy Drew, The Happy Hollisters, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn, Little Women, and on and on. Something I got cranky about as a teenager, going on inner rants like: "How can these people [my classmates] raise their hands and tell an English teacher all about the motives and feelings of characters in books, and not understand or care a thing about kids right next to them?" When I began to take writing seriously, I studied the aspects of craft -- character, plotting, POV, structure, setting, dialogue, revision, how to cut, how to market. But what writing program teaches you to grow the compassion you need to understand many types of people, the compassion you need to be a really good, even great, writer?

We have to be able to imagine where our characters are coming from and what they're going through. How they think and what they feel. Instead of just dismissing someone as snotty, dim-witted, wacko, evil, or whatever, we have to understand who they are on the inside and why they appear as they do on the outside. We need to develop compassion, which is to say that to be good fiction writers we have to become better people. Think of it : better people writing better fiction in better service to readers. Give me plot, absolutely. But please, please, give me compassion for characters. Walk in their shoes. Sit in their chairs. Don't just entertain me, but encourage me that there are compassionate people in the world like you who love and know their creations deeply. And I won't soon forget the world you've created.

Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write, speaks of the Third Dimension in writing, which is the writer's character. "It will shine through the writing," she says, "and make it noble or great, or touching or cold or niggardly or supercilious or whatever the writer is." And she adds, "I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person....now we are apt to say of a man, 'Oh, you must not pay any attention to his personality; it is his ideas that are the important thing.' But I think -- and so did Socrates and Michelangelo and many others -- that the ideas of a meager and dishonest personality are no good."

19 comments:

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. It also makes me wonder if being a writer has changed the way I think and feel about others, whether learning to take other perspectives in writing helps in developing more compassion in everyday life.

Laura Pauling said...

I can still love a book with out it, but it's much more apt to stay with me if the characters are powerful and fully realized.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- Yes, I think it can work both ways. That not only does compassion grow your writing, but writing can grow your compassion.

Laura -- Me too, but my love for a book without it is much more momentary. When the characters start breaking my heart, or making all kinds of lightbulbs go off for me, that book becomes one of my permanent favorites.

Vijaya said...

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Vijaya said...

Blogger just ate my response. Argh. Let me try again.

A. J. Cronin's first novel, Hatter's Castle, made me realize how much he understood the human condition. He was a doctor and he'd seen a lot ... maybe this is why I've enjoyed so many doctor-turned-writers. His memoir, Adventures in Two Worlds, is what planted the seed in my 12-year-old head of medicine and writing.

Mary Witzl said...

Yes. Whenever I'm reading and enjoying a book and find an observation that is snide, mean, or cruel, it ruins the experience for me and makes me less likely to read anything else by that author. Compassion is hugely underrated, and it makes all the difference in writing.

I make it a practice to include at least a few of my own characteristics in the characters of the less-than-perfect people I write about. That way I'll be more inclined to treat them with respect.

Mary Witzl said...

(When I wrote 'less than perfect people' just now, I meant people who are critically flawed. We're all imperfect, of course.)

Marcia said...

Vijaya -- Thanks for giving it a second try. :) These days, I try to remember to copy my comment before posting, so I can just paste it if it disappears. Wow -- wouldn't it be wonderful to light a spark for someone like AJ Cronin did for you. I remember a doctor named Richard something who wrote captivating nonfiction about his experiences/patients years ago. Just beautiful.

Marcia said...

Oh, Mary, hi! :) Your posts didn't appear until my reply to Vijaya did. If I put my own flaws in characters, I think it can actively expand my compassion. I've realized that I tend to be impatient with people who have the same flaws I do, or fear I do. Huh, I guess there's more than one reason to write what you know. :)

Jeff King said...

I always write my comments in Microsoft word, so that won’t happen. I just copy and past when I am done typing my comment.

As to your post I love the info. I started writing almost 3 years ago, before that the most I had ever written was a 2 page letter to a friend… and maybe a 1 page letter in high school. I would say the most important thing I have learned would be voice, and how to make it ring true in my work. Grammar and syntax can be sharpened, and the technical aspects of writing can be added upon. But voice is who we are, and how our mind uses words while composing.

Everyone’s voice is different because no two people think alike, talk alike, act alike… so our voice—in essence—is our very being on a page. Changing that is nearly impossible, the best we can do is learn how to take that and make it seamless.

cleemckenzie said...

Ah, this post speaks to my heart, Marcia. Writers must be connected with their feelings and have empathy with others as well, then bring all of that into their books.

Marcia said...

Jeff -- I can see how writing it in Word would prevent the "I forgot to copy" problem. Yes, editors so often agree that while other aspects of a story can be fixed, voice is pretty much either there or it's not.

Lee -- Yes, connection with your own feelings is important too, and not as easy as one might think.

Susan Fields said...

Interesting post! I hadn't thought of that before, but it makes perfect sense.

Kim Kasch said...

Oh I loved Piggle-Wiggle - still love the name :)

Marcia said...

Susan -- It does, doesn't it? Sure helps in character creation, for one thing.

Kim -- I loved her, too. Not all kids did; much of the humor was on an adult level. A couple of years ago I discovered more Mrs. PW books by the author's daughter. I guess they were unfinished mss. left upon her mother's death. IMO, they just didn't match the originals.

Marcia said...

Hmmm. When blogger was down, my response to Susan and Kim must have got eaten. It WAS posted, I'm sure.

Susan -- I think one thing that attracts novelists is the chance to live other lives. Without compassion, it's pretty hard to walk in those other shoes.

Kim -- I adored Mrs. PW. Though I think some of the humor went over kids' heads. It was really for all ages. A couple of years ago, I ran into more Mrs. PW books edited and co-authored by B McD's daughter, who found unfinished mss. at her mother's death. But for me they just didn't equal the originals in humor or interest.

Ruth Donnelly said...

What an awesome and insightful post, Marcia. And your childhood reading list is the same as mine. :)

Marcia said...

Ruth -- One series I never hear mentioned anymore is the Happy Hollisters. Sure, it was a little sappy, and could never get published today, but I ate up mysteries and enjoyed going on all those trips to places like Quebec and Alaska with the Hollisters.

Ruth Donnelly said...

I LOVED the Happy Hollisters. I totally wanted to be in their family.