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
In my last blog post I mentioned a few online classes I teach through Rio Salado College, and now I get to add to the list!
Later this month, I will begin teaching ENG106 - Basic Writing - for Brigham Young University-Idaho, and I couldn't be more excited! I think it will help me develop stronger teaching muscles with experience from a new class and teaching for a new college. Plus, Brigham Young University - Idaho is where I went to school for my undergrad, so I love that it has come full circle.
So, if you're looking for another online writing class to take, I'd love to have you in one of my classes!
Some of you know that I teach creative writing classes for Rio Salado College. In about a month, I'll be adding to the variety of courses I teach, so if you're looking for an affordable way to develop your creative writing, consider taking one of my courses. Here's the breakdown:
1. CRW 170 - Introduction to Writing Fiction
This is a great starter class if you want a little refresher or you're starting from scratch. There are 14 weeks, and I love that the class allows you to write about whatever you want. So, each assignment will have requirements, like focusing on dialogue or point of view, but you can write about wizards, teenage drug use, or whatever floats your boat. This course will also have you analyze the short works of other authors, helping you pinpoint what works and what doesn't.
2. CRW 271 - Topics in Writing: Fiction
Improve your fiction writing with this course. This is for those who have already taken some of the 100-level classes or have enough writing experience. Just like the other class, you get to write about anything that interests you. No matter if you're working on a piece well before this class or you want to start something new, it's a fun class that can take your writing to the next level. Plus, sometimes you just need an excuse to write more. And homework is a great excuse.
3. CRW 274 - Revising the Novel
I'm particularly excited about this one. This is a new class for me, and it's a perfect fit. I'm currently revising my own novels, so I know it will be as useful to me as it is to my students. It will deal with everything from a novel's structure to dialogue. I still have to go through the course myself first, but I can't wait to get started on this one.
4. CRW 201 - Portfolio
This course centers on - you've guessed it! - creating a writing portfolio. This is for those students working toward their academic certificate in creative writing. You can take work from other classes and perfect the pieces. I loved my portfolio classes when I was in school. It's fun to see where you started and how far you've come.
Any of these online classes sound interesting? Find out more here.
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?
Creating a story and writing it down on paper requires a piece of your soul. As writers, we’ve all felt it. But we don’t lose that piece of ourselves; it just survives elsewhere, kind of like a horcrux, as cheesy as that sounds. That’s how we make a story, a character, or a place come alive, with a small portion of ourselves, sacrificed for the greater good of the story itself.
Because it requires a piece of yourself to write, take a moment and consider how you find inspiration. Pinpointing your inspiration will allow you to give your best self to your story, and thereby, it makes for an even better story. Some, and you might be one of them, find music inspirational. They create playlists to listen to as they write.
For me, however, I’m inspired by photos and images – all forms of visual art. It’s all about finding a visual representation of what’s floating – or sometimes crashing – around in my brain, which allows me to build a world, create characters, and tell a story.
Discovering Pinterest – Creative Writer-Style
In 2012, I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time. The goal of NaNo is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I had never written a novel before, and I was a bit overwhelmed with the idea. This story was in my head for close to eight years. It tried to come to life in different forms – including picture book and short story – but it just wasn’t right. I had all these ideas in my head, but I couldn’t organize them.
I consider myself a visual learner, and in order to find focus, I knew I needed something that I could look at that inspired me to write the story I wanted and needed to write – the story that was begging to get out.
One day as I was pinning non-writing-related things, it hit me. Pinterest could be exactly what I needed to stay organized, clear out my mind a bit, and stay inspired. I created a board and then scoured the internet until I found images that closely resembled what was in my head.
Throughout the writing process, I kept referring back to my Pinterest board, and it kept me focused and on track for the full 30 days. Because it was my first go at it, I only pinned a few photos, but it was my game-changer. I even found people repinning or liking some of my pins. It helped me realize that even though these pins were meaningful to me and my story, art touches others, too.
Stepping it Up a Notch - Finding What Works
When it came to the second NaNoWriMo adventure, I was ready to tackle Pinterest all over again. This time, I made it a private board, just to see if I would have a different, more personal experience keeping it all to myself until I was ready to share the finished product.
For my second book, it was all about the places the characters traveled, and because they were in a different world, I needed some visual inspiration. I was looking for unique, magical, and beautiful. I found the most inspiring images, and I wrote the book around them, always having Pinterest open and viewable as I wrote.
Writing a Book without Pinterest – Disaster from the First Page
My latest attempt at NaNoWriMo wasn’t as successful as my previous years. Because I didn’t decide what to write about until the day before the event began, I didn’t create a Pinterest board to guide and inspire me. I figured I was experienced enough to skip this step and simply write from my imagination.
As you can imagine, it didn’t go so well.
But I continued. I pushed through it. Even as I was writing the novel, trying to get in that daily word count, I knew it was chaotic and quite the mess. Because of the short timeframe to complete the novel, I didn’t feel like I could slow down and create a Pinterest board once I doubted my ability to do without. Sure, it was a first draft, but I didn’t feel I had a firm grasp on the characters or even the story until almost the end. If I would’ve used Pinterest the way I had previously, I think the story would’ve been more natural and streamlined, from the very first page.
Moving Forward – Learning From My Mistake
The closer November gets – and the closer I get to starting a new novel – I find myself thinking more and more about how to use Pinterest better this year. After last time, I’ve learned my lesson. Pinterest will now be my #1 tool for developing characters and my story, and I’ll never write another book without creating it its very own Pinterest board. And you can’t go wrong with free.
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.