The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…
Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. Scientific experiments prove that reading fiction increases our empathetic capacity, and certainly this is even more so during the writing. Whether we go on to exercise this capacity in our interactions with others is another story, but at least the potential’s there.
I’ve recently caught myself praying much like Gardner’s exercise. I’m not big on praying for any particular outcomes for others—that’s their business—and instead “hold them in the light,” as the Quakers say. Up until recently this meant imagining the person surrounded by healing, loving sunlight. Who wouldn’t want that? But something shifted and now, instead, it seems I am that person warmed by God’s grace. I am my family member struggling with addiction; I am Donald Trump in all his angry bluster; I am my exuberant daughter; I am those children separated from their parents at the border. And for that instant, in some small way, I look out at the world—at the red barn on the hill—through another’s being, and there receive mercy.
The more I pray this way, the less it seems like an imaginative exercise. I really am these people. The boundaries between myself and others, even others I fear or despise, are an illusion. A person is a person through other persons, as the Nguni word ubuntu reminds us, or, as Thomas Merton wrote, “This inner ‘I’ who is always alone is always universal: for in this inmost ‘I’ my own solitude meets the solitude of every other man and the solitude of God.” We’re far more connected than we know. The boundaries of our identities are permeable.
This is, in fact, why fiction works. The secret to fiction is that the writer “turns from everything to one face…to find oneself face to face with everything,” as novelist Elizabeth Bowen put it. This is why the particulars of one character’s story can matter to a person reading it centuries later in a very different culture. If you wish to evoke the universal, describe the particulars.
Give it a try. The benefit of this way of praying is that belief is irrelevant and intention is everything. At the very least, our capacity for empathy increases. And who knows—maybe we’ll become better writers, too. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Fall is just around the corner! Looking ahead, here are a few opportunities for you to move deeper into your writing practice.
What might it be like to dedicate a whole week to your writing project? Bliss! Join me from September 24-28 up at Madeline Island School of the Arts. You’ll have plenty of time to write, good company, a beautiful place, and a few hours of class time to reconfigure your thinking about revision. This retreat is for anyone engaged in a big project who’s comfortable with lots of writing time. You don’t have to be ready to revise. Here’s the link: Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat.
The second Friday spiritual memoir writing sessions continue at Wisdom Ways! I’m especially excited to welcome Sherrie Fernandez-Williams as a guest writer in October. Drop in for a dose of inspiration on the following themes:
September 14: Re-Imagining Gift
We like to say that accomplished writers “have the gift.” What if instead of talent the key to effective writing is the writer’s capacity to receive? And what if we reframe the final stage of writing (sharing, publishing) as passing this gift along? We’ll launch our fall spiritual memoir series by tracing the generous, life-giving energy that moves in, through, and beyond the creative process.
October 12: Re-Imagining Prayer
“The more we come alive and awake,” writes Brother David Stendl-Rast, “the more everything we do becomes prayer. Eventually even our prayer will become prayer.” By writing about our past, we wake up to what happened and are enlivened by the process—in other words, we pray. Together we’ll write memories of our experiences of prayer, explore the evolution of our thinking about prayer, read spiritual memoirs that include prayer, and write as a prayerful gesture.
*Sherrie Fernandez-Williams will be a guest writer at this session.
November 9: Re-Imagining Loss
Writers cavalierly say there’s no such thing as a bad experience; there’s only good material. We’ll explore the redemptive dimension of writing—how revisiting memories of loss and hardship might not alleviate our suffering but can make of it a gift. How do we practice self-care and reader-care as we write hard memories?
December 14: Re-Imagining Revision
Revision—literally seeing with new eyes—is rewarding. But most of us come to revision with all sorts of mental blocks. Today we’ll revise our ideas about revision, exploring it as a form of play, as a means of listening, and as our central work as human beings.
Finally, a big THANK YOU to everyone who has reviewed Living Revision online (or any of my books, for that matter). I appreciate your help in spreading the word.
Here’s hoping you’re soaking up all that summer sunshine!