Saturday, October 10, 2015
Our Collective Humanity in the Individual Details of Our Lives
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a friend. We email back and forth frequently, to stay in touch and up-to-date on each other’s lives. This friend was trekking through a problem at work, and wrote a very insightful explanation of the issue: what he was struggling with, why this was difficult for him, and the potential solutions he planned to employ.
In my email response, I mentioned how impressed I was with the way he put his feelings and motives into words. I think many people would be able to relate to this, I wrote.
I was surprised when he dismissed my compliment. Oh, he replied, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself. He seemed to think that, because he was telling a story about his own life, his thoughts, feelings, ideas and insights would not be resonant or relatable for other people.
To me, this could not be further from the truth! Details from our own individual lives are, I believe, where we find our collective humanity. However, I think many, many of us fall into the same trap of self-dismissal as my friend did, at one time or another.
As a fiction writer, I have learned a counterintuitive principle: if you want readers to care about your characters, you might think to make your characters “everyone”—more vague, and less clearly defined, so that everyone can relate to them. But instead, the exact opposite holds true. The more detailed you are about specific, unique experiences, the more readers see themselves reflected in your characters. It is the stories that connect us; stories that make us care. As Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Power of Myth, stories have the unique purpose of passing down myths through the generations. There are common themes found in stories, from all societies, races, religions, time periods—threads that link us together as human beings.
In Lera Auerbach’s luminous book Excess of Being, published by Arch Street Press, this idea of details connecting us and getting to the heart of our common humanity is illuminated beautifully through her finely wrought prose. A Russian-American artist, this is Auerbach's first book in English, and she uses aphorisms to tell her story and examine her life. I found myself wanting to underline nearly every line on each page; this is a book bursting at the seams with honest beauty and wisdom. I found hope even in Auerbach's moments of darkness and irony, because I saw myself and my own experiences--my doubts, my fears, my frustrations--reflected in hers.
Not a single word is wasted. This is a book that begs to be read slowly, savored, and read again.
Here are some of my favorite aphorisms from Excess of Being:
"If you have a flaw -- make it part of your legacy."
"Music happens within. A performer allows others to hear what is already sounding."
I listen to the other silence--
the one that wells up
Finally, I'm listening."
Back to my friend. Oh, he had written, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself.
I replied to him that writing about yourself, and for yourself, is the best kind of writing. Writing about something that matters to you or helps you in some way ensures that it will matter to someone else and help someone else.