What Makes Writing Universal?


Writing is the next best thing to telepathy. It makes up for something we lack in nature: the ability to truly feel what it is like to be another person.

Sympathy aside, everything I experience, I ultimately experience alone. This will always be true. No one else will ever literally feel my pain, my bliss, my disappointments, or my triumphs, just as I will never know exactly what it feels like to be someone else. But by reading, maybe I can come close.

When reading, I draw on personal frames of reference to understand other viewpoints. All is Quiet on the Western Front gave me a horrifying sense of what it felt like to be a German soldier during World War I. The Slave Narrative of Frederick Douglas triggered in me personal feelings of injustice as the author showed me what it was like to be an American slave before the Civil War.

How is this experience transfer possible? I was not alive when slavery was legal, and I have never been to Europe or enlisted in an army. However, there are times I have felt trapped and times I have felt afraid. I also know what it feels like to experience loss, to feel helpless, to be angry at cruel people.

In other words, I have frames of reference that are practically universal to the human experience.

Not that they are literally universal, but at the risk of extraterrestrial disapproval, I will use the word anyway to refer to experiences most humans share.

Experience transfer through writing is possible, in part, because humans are incredibly similar, despite the fact that we define ourselves by our differences. James Russel Lowell said, “Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this – that you are dreadfully like other people.”

It is an uncomfortable thought; there are so many people I would rather not be like. But there is truth here.

Genetically we are 99.9 per cent alike. We draw from the same emotional palette.  We love and we hate, feel jealousy and rage. We occupy the same planet, see the same sun, and gaze at the same moon. We feel heat and cold, hunger and thirst.

No matter how uniquely intricate our lives appear, the fact remains:  some aspects of the human experience are so common, they persist over millennia. That is why I can read books by writers on the other side of the globe and still relate to their stories, even if their culture and language is radically different from my own.

You would think that the more universal writing is, the more commercially in demand it would be, since common frames of reference affect how much a reader can relate to a story. However, the opposite sometimes appears to be true.  Literature that focuses on exploring what is common to the human situation is set apart by the label “literary fiction” as opposed to commercial fiction, which exists primarily to entertain.

Thus, writing that should be easiest to relate to is packaged as something remote, unpopular, an exotic acquired taste, an oddity reserved for a small elite group of highly educated citizens. But the human situation belongs to everyone.

Besides, the line between “literary” and “commercial fiction” is blurry. A romance novel can potentially say as much about the human condition as fiction designated as literary, although it might do so by accident.

I wonder, though, why fiction devoted to exploring universals would not be considered entertaining or especially sellable.

When I was an adolescent, I read for many reasons. Sometimes I read to escape into another world. I read for drama and suspense. I read to become acquainted with interesting characters.

But I especially read to feel understood. I loved the passages that moved me to say, Yes, exactly! That is what it feels like to love and hate someone at the same time. This is what it feels like to roller skate or swim in the ocean or experience an awful family vacation. This is what it feels like to be lonely. This is what I have thought and felt, yet have been unable to put into words.

Sometimes a writer would admit something I was ashamed to tell anyone; all at once the burden would lift with the thought, I am not alone after all, and the secret really stops being embarrassing once you say it.

I read to compare my experiences with that of others; in other words, I read.for universal truths embedded in specific situations I could relate to. For me that was entertaining, whereas fiction with fake happy endings tended to depress me.

But how do writers achieve stories that resonate with universality?

Years ago, I read a book called Writing the Wave. In it I encountered an interesting way to wed the personal to the universal in writing. The author presented a drawing of a butterfly.

Next, she asked the reader to write on the first wing a one-sentence summary of a personal experience, say, the death of a grandparent. The next step was to think of a news event, say a devastating natural disaster like an earthquake, and write “earthquake” on the other wing.

The butterfly represents a balance between the personal experience and the large-scale event, the single loss of a family member multiplied a thousand-fold by a natural disaster. The next assignment was to write a story incorporating both wings of the butterfly, drawing emotions from the personal loss to make descriptions of the news event powerfully moving, rather than abstract and sterile.

There are other possibilities. On the first wing, you might write “police violence against ethnic or racial minorities.” On the other wing you might write, “The time I was bullied.”

The technique breathes emotional life into abstract reports and expands personal experiences into universal ones. Though I never literally write on butterfly drawings anymore, the image often comes back to me when I write.

It contains the important lesson that no matter how unique, quirky, and bizarre my experience is, there is probably something universal about it, something most anyone could relate to, if I took the trouble to find it.

The universal manifests in specific ways, and as a writer I want to do what the poet William Blake suggested: to see “the universe in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower.”

I read for the same reason: to find the universal in the specific. Stories that create a balance between the two are the kind of stories I remember best, the kind I go back and reread, and the kind I want to write.

If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my story collection “Remembering the Future” is available for purchase on Amazon.

One thought on “What Makes Writing Universal?

  1. Thank you so much for this heart-touching reasoning. i just accidentally came across your blog while i was looking for some explanation of the phrase “making the personal universal”. Reading your article made me recall Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying that “in every work of genius we we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” i was in lovely awe and appreciation of you while reading your blog because it felt so close to my heart! so thank you for this writing, and being a source of joy to me! you are a “GURU” to me.

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