The Pursuit of Universal Truths

For me, a lot of writing comes down to exposing universal truths.  When I first read Les Miserables, a lot of what Victor Hugo wrote about was valid today because he centered in on some universal truths.  His quote, “Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry,” spoke to me on a new level.  That’s what we try to do as writers, we try to connect with our audience.  Stephen King said that writers have telepathic powers.  I can project what I want you to think about. 

How many writers, when interviewed about the craft, talk about writing truth?  Hemingway, “Write the truest word you know, then another one…” Just because we see something as a universal truth, doesn’t make it so, and it also doesn’t mean that anyone else has seen this as true.  When you read something, and agree with the author, and are surprised that you hadn’t noticed it before, that’s a universal truth. 

For instance, if I say, “People walk like they drive,” you may see that behavior the next time you’re out and about.  Our goal with writing is to look for these timeless things that connect us to the past and future.  This is how writing, “stands the test of time.” It’s because the work has exposed universal truths. 

Connect with the audience

Readers like to connect with the author, too.  Or rather the work they are reading.  When we read and come across something that rings true, we feel the work was written for us.  We connect.  Being able to do that on a large scale must be an incredible feeling.  For a long time, I didn’t understand what Hemingway was talking about when he spoke about writing the truth.  I think this is what he was trying to convey.  Write things that are true, and the audience will connect.

Universal truth = human nature

So how does one find a universal truth?  They’re based in human nature.  These are things that transcend culture, skin color or geography.  They are things about humans, or about life, that are just true.  “Life isn’t fair,” for instance, is a good one.  Whether one agrees or not, it makes for a good defensible position for one to start a piece of writing.  The more we observe, the more of these truths we find and collect.  I probably need to start collecting them in one place, actually.  I tend to be cynical and sarcastic so my expression of these truths will be a bit dark from time to time.  My quote about people walking like they drive, for instance.  I have another saying that I use a lot.  “You learn something new every day, whether you want to or not.”  The basic idea is that we’re not always in control of what we are being confronted by, and I base it on a saying that people know.  

I think finding the universality of ideas is one of the more fun parts about writing.  It also is one that can’t really be forced.  These observations will just come to you as you’re out and about interacting with people.  This is another reason for writers to be active and people watching.  Perhaps the ability to spot these truths and present them in a different way is what differentiates writing.  

All that ugly symmetry

Hugo, for instance.  That idea of symmetry being ugly is right in my vein of observation and humor.  The problem was until I read it from Hugo, I didn’t think it was a truth, I just thought it was an idea of mine.  It was one of my observations that it’s horrible that every city I travel to has a standard look and feel now.  Developers are building outdoor malls and strip malls that look exactly the same.  I could drop you in Alabama and until a car drove by, you would have a tough time distinguishing the area from Southern California.  I find that depressing.  I don’t want to live in a sanitized world, I want to experience the differences of each place I go, otherwise, what’s the point of traveling?  If we remove all the sharp edges, there will be no reason to travel.  The universal truth will end up being, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

And that very well may end up being the case.  Just because something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t going to continue, or that you’ll like it.  People are more aggressive behind the wheel of their car.  True.  Exposing this won’t change it.  But it allows you to insert an element of absolute truth into your writing.  This works especially well in science fiction, where you have to get the reader to agree to let their guard down a little. By linking to a truth today, you help the reader travel to your place and time you’re writing about.  

And now time travel

First, we were telepathic, now we offer time travel.  We writers are a clever lot, aren’t we?  If I pepper a universal truth about everything being the same and being boring to the character the reader is interacting with, it won’t matter that the description of the area is something off of this planet, or inside a spaceship, or another idea that doesn’t exist in this world.  That link to truth will help the reader’s mind categorize the experience as true.  

So I try quite hard to spot these truths, and then try to write them down in my own way, in my own words.  It’s only when I come across a really great one that speaks to me that I keep it in its original form.  Hugo’s is one I carry around with me closely.  It’s a pet peeve of mine, and one of the constant lamentations I have about America today.  I’m sure it will come out in some of my writing eventually.  

I am not always in control

But another universal truth is I don’t always control what ends up getting on the page, especially the more I write.  There’s two types of writers, those who plan, and those who don’t.  I tend not to plan.  Even when I have a story idea, I’ll flesh out the idea, maybe even the backstory and character history.  Then, I’ll just start writing and see where things go.  It’s always somewhere I never thought I’d end up.  Just like this piece.  I started with a single idea in my notebook of “universal truths.”  So I think about the topic and write my thoughts down and see what comes out.

Another universal truth of writing is that not everything we create is good or fit for human consumption.  This might be one that ends up being stuffed into the back of an electronic notebook somewhere, never to be seen again. Only time will tell because that’s part of my process.  I write it, and then move on.  I’ll come back in the next week or so to re-read what I wrote and see if it still resonates with me.  If it does, it ends up being pulled into a drafts folder for the blog. If it doesn’t, it sits here, in Evernote, its fate unknown.

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