Writing to Learn Who We Are and to Make a Difference

The dramatist, novelist, and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, said; one uses a glass mirror to see his face, but he uses works of art to see his soul. We know that writers write to tell a story, or to entertain, to teach or inspire, but we also write to learn who we are, and in doing so, we learn about one another.

Prompted by the combination of curiosity, imagination, reflection and opinion, we are driven toward our craft like a moth propelled toward the light on a warm, summer night.  What interests, beliefs or passions do I have that interest another?  What frustrations, regrets, or struggles could lurk inside me that might cause me to behave one way and another individual to react differently? If I learn who I am, and who I am not, will I learn about others?  Will others learn about themselves from my work?

Some writers hear a story in the news, or from a friend, colleague or loved one, that affects them so deeply that they would have more luck cutting off their own shadow than to let go of the impression.   Reaching inside to touch the writer’s soul, the story throbs like an open wound that won’t heal.  It inspires her to question herself, her motives, the possibilities, the differences, and those of others.

She wonders what pain could be so bad that a parent would suffer the lives of the children to whom he or she gave life? What could have possibly caused such deep and destructive madness?  Was the line that separated rational from irrational thinking so frail?  Similarly, why did the politician put himself and his own family before the people he pledged to serve and protect?  Does selfishness and greed truly run that deep and if so, where does it come from and could anything truly ever satisfy that need?  Likewise, why did the business owner turn the young man away simply because he was different?  Couldn’t the employer see the integrity, honor, morality and ethics inside the boy as clearly as he could see the blue jacket he wore?  Or did he have no time, energy or compassion to bother looking?  Moreover, why couldn’t the head football coach see what was so obvious, that the high school sophomore merely needed a mentor, someone who cared and believed in him, and would make the boy feel worthy, unlike the way his father had made him feel all these years? 

What is inside me that draws me to this story?

How does a person become who he is?

What lurks inside each one of us that has the potential to cause us to treat one another so carelessly?

What is inside me that could be inside others?

What is in others that could be inside me?

What drives us to think the way we think, or feel the way we feel?  Or act the way we act?

We all have questions, whether we are writers or not, but it is the writer, (or motivated individual), who digs like a locust seeking a nest in the sand, tunneling deeply for solution, who seeks to find the dwelling place within himself, rather than settle for building his house upon the sand. The writer  knows that it is inside the tunnel where he will find meaning and security, to help him fight the external influences surrounding him, rather than seek outside where life’s pressures have the power to suck him into self-destruction, or sweep him away like a broken shell in the rip-tide.

Like the locust on its quest, writers dig for an outcome, a solution, the puzzle piece that fits, an answer, or hope.  YET, unlike the oblivious and shallow, self-serving  locust, (greedy politician, irrational bad parent, or arrogant and dispassionate coach…)  it is deep within ourselves, as writers and human beings, where we should seek the answers that are universal, because what is inside each of us eventually metamorphoses into, or helps to create, what is outside us. For, isn’t it true that whatever compels some one else could surely, in a different circumstance, influence each one of us and, likewise; whatever might drive me could sway another?

William Kenower writes, in the September issue of Writer’s Digest;  You are not your books, your awards, or your rejection letters, or your fan mail, or your website. You are what interests you most, what pulls your attention like a magnet, what wakes you up with a jolt of excitement, the ideas that crave expression. Nothing is more unique to you than what’s going on internally, within the confines of your own mind.

In other words, you are not what you create on, or want from, or receive from, the outside. It is what is inside each one us that matters, and that contributes to, or creates, what is outside us, not the other way around. It is what is inside of us that makes us who we are and it is the desire to learn who we are, to learn what interests or excites us, what we believe, and what we feel and think, that inspires us to write (and to live how we live).

Kenower has a line in this article that I love: he writes that he would like to say he never looks for himself where he is not, meaning he wishes he could admit that those external rewards or forces do not drive him, the way his desire to learn who he is and how he thinks and feels should drive him.  Yet, like each of us, he is human and admittedly, we all look for ourselves at times, in places we shouldn’t.  We look to the external reward; the paycheck, the trophy, the win, someone’s appreciation, praise, respect, admiration or love, for satisfaction, but it is what is within each one of us that truly matters and ultimately, what creates, contributes to, or obtains all of those things on the surface.

It is within us that we find the greatest lesson to share, and the most profound story to weave, because we are all connected in this life and each one of us, (or someone we know or love), at one time or another, has shared , or will share, the same desires, dreams, challenges, failures, pains, insecurities or questions. We all, at one time or another, have a similar tale to tell.

Likewise, Maria Walley tells us that we (writers, ..yet really any artist)  are in the business of selling our vulnerability.  After all,  she writes, we’re taking the innermost parts of ourselves, our ideas, and translating them into words intended to provoke thought, and in some cases (many cases- in my view), emotion. It can be painful to do, but it’s also what makes good writing worth reading.

It is the ability to be human that resonates with the reader and it is the tender spots the writer hits upon that the reader studies most closely, dwelling upon longer, to which she pays more attention, that allows her to see her own reflection on the page.

We can not turn in a direction we do not see, or toward a preference, inclination, or opinion to which we do not understand, therefore; it is those moments of awareness, recognition and familiarity to which our readers relate, rather than to the make and model of a neighbor’s car, the number of trophies an athlete displays on his shelf, or the size of the bank president’s paycheck, that excites or interests the reader most. The allure and appeal of the external reward is merely the backdrop for the internal magnificence of what is truly complex and captivating inside each one of us…. that has the power to inspire the most, and to make the biggest difference. 

Writing to learn who we are is to write about ALL of us. Although truly solving the puzzle of the internal workings of our minds is daunting, it is the process itself that propels us forward in our craft. To pursue what inspires us, should be the journey the writer pursues, not merely the external payoffs we might receive.

Gertrude Stein said; A writer should write with his eyes and the painter paints with his ears,  meaning we seek with our senses, with our questions, and with our hearts.  Consequently, we spin together that which we see inside and around us, that which we hear, and that which we question, and we mix it together, before spilling it outward in its color and brilliance, onto the page, or the canvas, of our work, for all the world to ponder. 

Like an open wound before the surgeons hands are upon it, the writer’s vulnerability and internal workings lie exposed- for the reader who opens herself and her own vulnerability and pain with us, as we , the writer and the reader together- as one,  await its repair, even if that healing comes only in the form of self-recognition, self-inquiry, resonance, hope or acceptance.

Yes, we write to tell a story, to entertain, to teach, or inspire, and maybe even to make a living, but we also write to learn who we are and in doing so, to learn about one another, and likewise, we learn about others to learn about ourselves, and ultimately, we write to make a difference.

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