We are authors.
Most of us will tell you that we had a story to share. We could do nothing else. We could be no other way.
That’s about what I’d tell you too. I had a story, I saw a story-shaped hole in the world’s narrative, and I’m working to fill that empty spot.
But why me? Why us? Why do we write these stories? Why do we sacrifice our time, our thoughts, our money and so many other things just for the sake of a story we think needs to be told? Why do we have to write these stories? Where comes our right to write, our right to fill the story-shaped holes?
The easiest answer is because someone reads the things we write. Therefore, we may write them.
People read stories voraciously. They devour gossip, drama, death, tragedy, comedy, like kings at a feast; filled to bursting but calling for more. You know what I mean; check out a news site grasping at tiny details for a page of words.
I wrote a story once from the view of an African-American girl in the deep south during the civil rights movement. The first question I was asked was “Why did you, a white girl raised in 90′s middle america, write this story? What gives you a right to tell this story?”
It was funny, because I had just recently written a story about two middle-aged white men in the deep of the Vietnam war. I wasn’t quite sure what the difference was. I’m not a middle aged white man any more than I’m an African-American girl. I’ve never been to Vietnam in the rainy season. At least I’d been to Mississippi. Not only that, but none of the people in the class had written a story from precisely the perspective of who they were at that exact moment.
So, the question only expands. What gives us the right to write anything but our story?
Leave aside biographies and research. I’m talking fiction from a view that isn’t yours. A white boy in California writing about a black girl in New York. A modern American writing about a girl in ancient China. A straight married lady writing about a single gay man. Any human being writing about a species other than human.
Why do we write these? Is it curiosity? Ignorance? Flattery? Arrogance?
Taking on a different view point isn’t easy; it requires a lot of research and thought to have a hope of getting it right. The only reason I attempted that story was the amount of reading about that era that I’d been doing in a history class.
But go deeper. Research is a rather stony reason to write something as fluid and emotional as a story. More important than why we write them is why we feel that we can. What gives us the right to put those words about people that are not us to the page? What gives us the bravery to write about someone in love, in pain, someone betrayed, someone joyful, or someone on the brink of death when maybe we’ve never been there ourselves, never seen it, never tasted it?
The measure of a writer is their command of empathy. Not sympathy – that’s easy. Sympathy is akin to pity; you don’t know exactly how or why someone feels the way they do, but you feel sorry for them. In real life, sympathy’s fine. In writing, you need empathy. You need to be able to tie the reader to your characters and then pull them around by the same heartstrings. Your readers need to stand with your characters and understand them intimately.
So, your right to write comes partly from your ability to empathize, and incite empathy in others.
Now the question has changed: where does Empathy come from?
Here is the scientific explanation. For those of you without the twenty minutes to read and process (it’s freaking amazing, by the way) here’s the short version:
When you do something yourself, or when something happens to you certain neurons fire.
When you watch someone doing the same thing, or similar things happening to other people certain neurons fire.
The trick of empathy is that some of those certain neurons are the same in both cases.
To inject a bit of humor, if you’re a boy and you get kicked where it really hurts, neurons A and B go off.
If you watch a different boy get kicked in the junk, neurons B and C go off.
So are mirror neurons the answer? We have the right to write based on mirror neurons?
Heck no. ‘Right’ implies a societal morality which has a set of rules and requirements in order to earn our keyboards. Mirror neurons help, yes, but there is another component besides empathy which needs to go into our writing in order to make it shine as an example of who we are and what we stand for, the reason that we can be the word smiths of our generations.
I think it’s a lot simpler than we believe.
Our right to writing comes from our readers, yes.
It also comes from the empathy of our minds.
But most of all, the right to write comes from our selves.
One of the most common posts I see on writing blogs, twitter accounts, whatever is “I am not a writer.” or “I am trying to be a writer” or “I want to be a writer.” And yes, I could have just gotten to the point and told you what I comment in those blogs. “A writer writes. You write, therefore you are a writer.”
But I think its time that I explained that it’s so much more than that. The ‘be’ verb is easily dismissed. We throw it around like a cheap tennis ball, stuck into contractions and practically forgotten.
“I am so tired.”
“Man I’m hungry.”
“Oh, I’m a teacher.”
Every once in awhile we have to be jolted into remembering: when we say “I am” we are doing more than describing our physical selves. We are describing the conscience which no one can see, touch, or feel but ourselves. We are describing a thing which is completely and utterly ephemeral, able to be changed by chemical imbalance, yes, but for now existing in a state of purity; invincibility. The “I am” of now will forever remain the “I am” of this moment, no matter what is changed, added, or subtracted later.
The act of writing does not necessarily make you a writer. Neither do those who read your writing make you a writer. Nor does the empathy created by your mirror neurons make you a writer.
You are a writer when you take up your keyboard, your pen, or your pencil, and you say I am a writer.
And you know what?
I am a writer.