Monday, September 18, 2017

The Writing Lesson I Never Forgot: Write with Kindness

During my entire long career as a writer, I took only one creative writing course, during my junior year in high school. At the time I found it a somewhat painful experience because the teacher committed an unpardonable sin: he preferred my one-year-younger sister to me. Not that we were in the same class, or that he ever showed partiality in any overt or biased way. But I knew the two of them had a special closeness; he remains her favorite teacher, and I suspect she remains his favorite student, to this day. And, in that terrible way siblings can have of willfully claiming a part of the universe as their own, and shutting its doors against the other one, I was the writer, not her! I was the one he should have loved best.

But there's more. One of our assignments was to write a character sketch, and with the new-found cynicism of a sixteen-year-old, I wrote about our parents. I "saw through" them, documenting their disappointed dreams, timidity that blighted their lives, annoying eccentricities, even their middle-brow literary tastes (Readers Digest). I was proud of the piece, for how I had observed them so carefully and recorded my observations with such unflinching honesty. I expected that it would blow my teacher away. (Finally, he'd see how much better a writer I was than my sister).

He didn't like it.

He said it was impressively written in many ways, but that it wasn't kind.

The comment burned its way into my heart. I felt I had been judged negatively not only as a writer, but as a person. I actually gave up writing for a decade or so, focusing on the academic study of philosophy (many of the world's great philosophers weren't particularly kind).

But now I think that comment he gave me was so wise, so true, so totally right. It's not enough to see "through" our characters. We need to see "into" them. We need to understand not only how they are, but why they are this way. Clever observation needs to be deepened by compassionate understanding. Now I write about even my most flawed characters (who are usually my protagonists) with a kind of desperate love.

Decades later, when I read these words by Brenda Ueland in her wonderful 1938 manual, If You Want to Write, I finally realized exactly what Mr. Jaeger had been trying to tell me: "I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person."

Mr. Jaeger made me both.

9 comments:

  1. Wonderful! This really resonates with me Claudia. It is so easy to sometimes be mean and often hard to be kind. Making a mean character find his inner kindness in my latest MG took a lot of effort and reflection. I was [pleasantly surprised with the result.

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    1. Thanks, Darlene. I still remember mean things I did in my childhood - and I consider myself to have been a basically kind person - but boy, are people complex. Including us.

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  2. Love the sentiment behind this, and also the practical value for writing. Seeing INTO, not just THROUGH our characters. Great reminder! Tx!

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  3. What wonderful wisdom! Thank you for this!

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    1. Thanks, Bobbi. The wisdom was hard won, but worth it.

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  4. LOVE the idea of looking into, rather than through.

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