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Four Ways Writing Novels Makes You a Better Person

If you took my friend Kaze’s sensibility and mine and charted us as a Venn diagram, I’m guessing there’d be about 80 percent overlap. That is, I seldom disagree when Kaze speaks out. And in a recent post, “Does Writing a Novel Make You a Better Person?” Kaze made a compelling case that writing novels turns you into a grumpy, self-absorbed bastard.

Now I’m not saying anything Kaze said in that post is wrong. In recent years a minor publishing industry has sprung up that relies on the children of famous novelists giving you an insider’s account of what unreliable, unpleasant, alcoholic, depressive, or just downright difficult people their fathers were. And there is something about creativity that seems to attract bipolar personalities. Yes, point taken

But I would argue there’s more to the story. Part of it begins with a half-truth about the nature of storytelling. S.M. Shrake is a guy who heads a new storytelling organization in Washington, DC, Story League, where all sorts gather to perform stories that as the Washington Post puts it, range “from comedic to somber to sexual, sometimes mixing all three.”

“Storytelling is the world’s second-oldest profession,’’ Shrake told the Post. “But it’s making a comeback now because we’ve become more narcissistic and confessional and we love to hear about other people.”

Photo of John Cheeever

John Cheever, great novelist, tough person to be around.

Kaze’s take: “…writing, of all the tasks you may choose to pursue, is the one that insists you look inward.  Inward’s where the bogeyman lives.  Inward’s the haunted house. “

What I’d say to Shrake is that not all stories are narcissistic and confessional and what I’d say to Kaze is that you’ve only mentioned half of it. Yes, writing fiction requires you to dive into the self, but a fiction writer is a master ventriloquist. You won’t get far unless you develop an ability to credibly assume the roles of characters who are not some version of you. To do that, you need to be able to imagine yourself into other people’s mentalities – a feat that requires considerable – uh, what’s the word? – empathy.

The daily practice of writing fiction in my view builds this capacity. And for some blessed personalities, the habit of empathy worked out each day at the writing desk may well carry over to relations with others in the real word.

Here are three more ways the habit of storytelling can improve your personality.

Sense of humor (and the accompanying Stoic capacity to bear the slings and arrows of daily life)

It really helps you to get through bad situations, conflicts in work or family life, if you can see them as potential fodder for a story you’ll write some day, ideally a comic story. I once worked on the lower editorial rung of a magazine where we bright young junior editors saw the senior editors (our bosses) as insecure, hidebound, self-important beings lifted from an Evelyn Waugh novel.  It was impossible to speak truth to Power in this situation (Power wouldn’t get it and didn’t want to hear it anyway), but we could make jokes, lots of them, and we did. The youngest of us all suggested seeing the magazine as a sit-com – every moronic decision by the chain of bosses above us became the theme for that week’s’ episode.

Photo of storyteller at Story League event.

Storyteller at Story League event.

This office-as-sit-com idea, long before “The Office,” had several effects. It got us through the day with a measure of our sanity intact and allowed us to keep trying to do our jobs to the best of ability. It also has provided me with good store of content for my own fiction. I’m still working the vein of that magazine office and will have it for years to come.

Mindfulness

It is perhaps the core Buddhist idea. Pay attention. Even as you wash the dishes, be fully present in the washing of the dishes. Give your mind’s attention completely to washing the dishes.

Good writers are great noticers. Every detail of reality is potentially important as an element in future fiction. In a sense this attitude toward life is its own reward. It makes meaningful every part of your existence.  The closest I’ve ever come to fully attentive dish washing are those times when I’m engaged in writing a story. Everything, every passing scrap of your life, is charged with the potential of making your story better. You notice things as a writer.

Self-Discipline

To write a novel requires a sustained effort. You must get your habits in good order. As Flaubert said, “Be  regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Self-help guru Stephen Covey was even pithier: “First things first.”

There’s no question that when I’m working on fiction, when my day is built around that writing time, I get more things done. So I’ve played Yang to Kaze’s Yin in this post, but I’ll admit there’s as much individual variation among writers on these matters as there are varieties of novels.

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Suppose everybody in the world were a novelist. Would that be a better place to live than our present world? Kaze might see this as a world of self-enclosed, self-obsessed, self-hating, hard-drinking personalities who only want to be alone to wallow in their misery.

Not so for me. Basing it on the very small sample of published novelists (four) I’ve known personally over the years, I see a world of novelists as likely to be a smarter, kinder, more aware and attentive place filled with wry humor and quiet dedication. And nuclear weapons would never have been invented,

2 Responses to Four Ways Writing Novels Makes You a Better Person

  1. But … but where would we find all the readers? Writing novels is painful enough; having them unpublished and unread is salt in the wound.

    I’m fearful that a collection of previously empathetic and kind (writing) novelists would turn into vengeful zoombie armies of (unpublished) novelists. Especially when they realize that … having found their voices … having shared their most painful insights in equisite prose and vivid characters — that no one cares. We’d probably have to nuke ‘em.

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