As the students in one of my classes turn in their personal essays and another class working on personal articles for potential publication in magazines, I've had universal truths on the brain. As I've pondered how to accurately describe the idea of a universal truth to my students, I've made it even clearer for myself.
What is a Universal Truth?
A universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. Even though the reader may not have almost died in a car crash, attended their parents' wedding later in life, or swam with dolphins, they can still relate to your experience through the emotion or the deeper meaning of your experience.
So, say you read an article or story about someone fighting in WWII. Even though you've never fought in WWII, you can relate to the fear, confusion, and maybe even hope in a dire situation that the writer experienced. The same goes for when you write your own work. Remember, the reader doesn't have to have the same experiences in life in order to connect to your work on an emotional level. It's all about base emotions - the universal truths of being human.
To sum it up, the best universal truth is felt in the heart of the reader.
When is a Universal Truth Necessary?
Both fiction and non-fiction works need to have a universal truth. Otherwise, how will the reader connect with it? The reader needs something that draws them in emotionally, and that's where the universal truth comes into play.
Writing a non-fiction article about a personal experience, writing a memoir or even just a blog post? You need a universal truth.
Writing a fictional short story or novel? You need a universal truth.
Because I just finished reading "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert, I'll use that as an example.
I have not had the same experiences as Emma Bovary. I have not cheated on my husband, I have not spent money so frivolously that I risked execution, and I've never committed suicide. However, that doesn't mean I can't connect with Emma's character and her plight just the same. I understand the want to buy things for the sake of buying things. I understand the feeling of unhappiness or being unfulfilled by life and what you thought it held in store for you. I understand complete devastation and embarrassment and a shocking loss of hope that turns your entire world and universe upside down.
Because I have felt those emotions, I can find a deeper meaning beyond the physical actions of the characters. I can put myself into the story and be a more active participant. I can connect.
How Do You Find Your Universal Truth?
Sometimes identifying the universal truth in your own work can take practice. Take the main events in your writing and boil it down as much as you can. Boil it down until you hit the root emotion. It can be as simple as fear, sadness, joy, or anxiety.
If you're still not sure what your universal truth is, ask a friend or a family member to read your piece. Ask them to boil down the events until they find the root emotions. Or, ask them what parts they connected with the most and why. Once you get the hang of it, identifying your own universal truths will become much easier and more natural.
Examples from Published Works
Sometimes life has a way of raising you up to beautiful heights or knocking you down until you're flat on your face. When either one happens, it colors the following days. When it's a good experience, everything seems more vibrant and the world feels like a happier place.
When it's bad, it can color every experience after that with anger, frustration, sadness, or bitterness. I'm hoping not everyone has this problem, but, for me, I can't turn my brain off. I replay events over and over in my head. I can't focus. I can't sleep. I can't move on. I become stuck on the injustice and the bad actions of myself and others.
As a writer, here are two ways I've found to deal with these emotions that feel like they will chew you up and spit you back out.
Six years ago, I experienced a very traumatic medical event. It rocked my world. It crushed me. It felt as though it shattered my soul, and I still believe it was/is true. I didn't feel like I had anyone to really to talk to about it, not fully, at least. My negative feelings were eating me alive, and I was a wreck.
I turned toward journaling my raw feelings. First, it was in the form of blog posts, and then I turned it more private and just had a word doc on my laptop. I didn't censor myself. I didn't hold back. I just wrote what I felt. Simple as that.
And you know what? It helped. It let me put some of those feelings away because I had them on paper. Once they were on paper, they didn't have to be inside me, rotting away.
Another way to channel these emotions is to use the people/experiences as fodder or inspiration for a character or a story.
For example, I worked with this one guy years ago who was one of the most pompous and degrading people I had met - at least back then. This guy would haunt my thoughts and sometimes my work-related nightmares. He was so much like another person in my life at that time that I paired them together in my head and made them into a character in one of my novels.
Let me tell you... that was a lot of fun. I got to explore who they were as people (at least my interpretation of them) and put them where I felt they fit into the story. Those who have read that manuscript have told me that they could picture that character so clearly, that he was a great villain. I think it's because I wrote with real emotion when I created the character. I used real life as my inspiration, and because these actual people were so real to me, the character became so real to the reader. Plus, it helped me explore their motivations for behaving the way they did. It helped me understand them better. I didn't like them any better after, but I could understand why they acted out the way they did.
And now it looks like I'm back to this point with a recent life event. Several good friends suggested that I journal about my feelings, and I think that's a good start. But I decided I needed to take it a little further and develop a story around it. I thought about it for days and weeks, and three ideas finally hit me. Thank you, muses! I haven't started writing about it yet, but even just playing with these ideas in my head, I already feel a little better. I can't wait to use a person/several people to bring a new character to life. And I think it will help me understand more about them, too. If I need anything right now, it's understanding.
Plus, it's cheaper than therapy, right?
Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this quote: "Write what you know."
That quote has been tossed around in the writing world over and over again. I know I've heard it countless times, and I thought I knew what it meant. It's obvious, right? Write about things that have happened to you. Write about people you know, the things you've done. That's how you make writing authentic, right? Base everything you write on your own life experiences.
Well, partly wrong.
There is nothing wrong about writing based on your own life events. There's gold there. But I think the real meaning of that quote is all about emotions, not events.
Write what you know. Write what you feel. Write what you have felt.
Explore those base and complicated emotions in your writing. How did you feel when your first pet died? You experienced grief, sorrow, confusion, and pain. Use that to write. You don't have to make your characters lose a pet to use those personal emotions. You can use your own pain and grief as inspiration for your characters, but use it in a different way. The feeling will be authentic, even if the events themselves never happened to you.
That's the beauty of writing - that an author can make the reader feel, and feel deeply. How is it that you can read a fantasy novel based in a world that doesn't actually exist, and you can feel along with the character? It's because those root emotions the author uses are real.
Think about the last book that made you feel something. Was it because the character reached the finish line? Or slayed the dragon? Or stood up to their abusive family member? No. It was because of the emotions attached to those actions and experiences. It was because of that feeling of triumph, of accomplishment, of pride, and of relief. You felt along with the character because you've experienced those same emotions or feelings, or, at the very least, you're able to empathize.
Emotion is universal. We can all understand it, even if it's based around made-up people in made-up worlds. No matter what, we all feel the same things in the same ways. That's what builds connections between readers and characters. That's where the magic lives.
Writing what you know is about emotion, not events.
So, take a moment and write down or mentally explore things that happened to you in your life that made you feel deeply. Analyze those feelings. Understand why you felt that way.
And then start writing.
Having your writing critiqued isn't always easy. And for some of us, giving feedback on someone else's writing is just as difficult. But there is an art to it, no matter if you're giving or receiving. And as a writer, you'll find yourself on both sides at some point.
The good news? Gracefully giving and receiving writing critiques are skills that can be developed, and you can start today.
Tips for Giving Writing Critiques
Tips for Gracefully Receiving Writing Critiques
Personal Experience - Both Sides of the Line
With two creative writing degrees, my work was critiqued over and over and over. Even though I’ve had my work critiqued a lot, by both people I knew and total strangers, I haven’t always taken the critiques as gracefully as I should have. While working on my master’s capstone (thesis), I spent countless hours on my 20-30 page proposal. My advisor told me I had to redo it all. It wasn’t what she was looking for, and I had followed the wrong template. I didn’t say anything to her, but my husband got an earful. Even with just a few months left of graduate school, I thought about dropping out, which was a first for me. I was embarrassed and humiliated, and I was tired. But I did finish and I used the rest of her brutally honest critiques to better my own writing. Since then, I've worked hard to develop a thicker skin when it comes to my writing.
The most important thing I learned was that a writing critique isn’t a personal attack.
As a college professor myself now, I’ve had a lot of students in my classes who didn’t take critiques well at all. I’ve had them drop the class after one graded assignment because they were embarrassed themselves. Some students have a difficult time understanding that my critiques are meant to help, to better their writing. That’s why they’re taking writing classes, right? If I didn't give honest feedback, they would never reach their writing goals. Sometimes writers need a little tough love to help them see their work objectively, enabling them to make it even better.
What's been your experience with giving or receiving feedback on your writing?
When learning how to write, it basically comes down to an extensive series of writing rules. Don't do this. But don't forget to do that, and so on. As I continued my education in creative writing, I finally recognized the faulty "rules" my English teachers taught me. But now that I teach writing, it's time to get rid of some of these "rules" once and for all.
1. Flipping to the end of a chapter to see how long it is makes you a bad reader.
This rule was given to me by my seventh grade English teacher. I had always considered myself a reader, but I always flipped to the end of the chapter, just to see how long it was---to see if I had time to finish it. I was heartbroken to learn that I was a bad reader. Mr. Holliday was so adamant about that particular "rule." By the way, I still flip to the end of a chapter while I read. And you know what? I'm still a good reader.
2. Using contractions in writing means you're unintelligent.
This "rule" was from the same teacher as with #1, Mr. Holliday. His reference for this "rule" was a fiction book he had been reading. Apparently there was a ransom note without contractions. The investigator or detective knew the kidnapper was intelligent because of his lack of contractions. Can I just say that this is one of the most ridiculous things I've heard. In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends using contractions. It can give writing a more personal, sincere feeling. A lack of contractions can make a piece feel stuffy, stiff, cold, distant.
3. In a research paper, the end of every sentence needs to have a reference or citation.
This one was from my ninth and tenth grade English teachers. Whenever we were assigned a research paper, they required us to cite every sentence. That didn't leave any room for our own writing, only direct quotes or paraphrasing from the sources we referenced. I later learned that that is not a research paper; it is merely a listing of facts. There is no voice nor a writer. There is no original thought.
As you continue your writing projects, remember that not all the "rules" you've been taught are correct. It is important to differentiate them for yourself. However, sometimes you can't break the writing rules until you know them and you understand why they're rules in the first place.
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.