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
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.