Wise Words for Writers: Ancient Roman Poet, Horace

“Adversity reveals genius.  Prosperity hides it.”

No, son.  You need to be seasoned to write well.  Artists need to suffer.  That’s what they say.  I don’t buy it, entirely. 

It is true that musical genius can be found at a very early age.  But so also mathematical genius, and those two are much closer than many believe.

Also, it may be that a young painter can capture an image while still young.  Good eyes and a steady hand may have something to do with that.

But writing…

Obviously, non-fiction requires certain credentials or a host of experience to write about a topic effectively.  People, though, have the strange idea these days that anyone of any age can write fiction successfully.  Story, though, is about adversity.  There is struggle and conflict and sometimes win or lose.  And it is hard to imagine one can write well about such things until they have lived such things

The old adage is not incorrect:  “Write what you know.”  But how is it we know things?

1.         Learning.  We can study and learn about things, but without living them it is all academic.  It is possible to write about life in an academic way, but it will likely read academic and not make an effective story.  There is nothing worse than fiction written by thesaurus.

2.         Experience is the great teacher.  The cliché is not necessarily untrue that to really understand another person and their problems one needs to walk a mile in their shoes.  A young twenty-something might produce a good story about teenage angst; but at twenty-something the story is not likely to have the range or depth of the story the same person might write when they are forty-something and have experienced more of what life is really like. 

Distance and perspective also help in crafting good fiction.  Certainly Mark Twain had to get a little age and experience and put some distance between himself and his childhood before he could write effectively about Tom and Huck.

Experience is indeed the great teacher, and when it comes to storytelling, experiences in the adversities of life are invaluable.

3.         Empathy can go a long way toward telling a good story, if we are inclined and gifted with an empathetic soul, even if we don’t walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.  Few, if any church members have suffered through the kind of poverty and need of some, but it does not stop them from working in a soup kitchen or at a food bank or on a Habitat for Humanity house.  Yes, some of that may be to make themselves feel better about their own good fortune, but some is surely an empathy for the wrongness of those who go without.

Hans Christian Anderson was never a little girl, and while he may have experienced the cold, he never froze to death.  This did not prevent him from writing the Little Match Girl.  

Charles Dickens was undoubtedly a man of great empathy for the poor and working class souls that surrounded him.  He was able to take his empathy in one hand and his experiences of childhood in the other and produce Oliver, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.  The beauty of A Christmas Carol is not found in Scrooge, but in the ordinary people around him who were affected by this miserly, old humbug.  Dickens may have never experienced a haunting, but I have no doubt that at some point, like Scrooge, he came face to face with the idea that it is appointed once for a man to die and after this the judgment.

4.         Eyes also matter, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  Writers, they say, are 50% perspiration and 50% observation.  But it is hard to imagine the young observing much if they haven’t lived, yet.  Travel, they also say, broadens the mind.  And travel through life is certainly a key to storytelling. 

Then there is the matter of being well read, which many claim is imperative to writing well. 

All of this indicates to me that the young might tell a good story, but with a little age:  some experience, empathy and open eyes, they might tell a better story.  This flies in the face of our culture of youth.  Even in the writing world I know some editors who only want “fresh” young voices.  Ignorance on their part, I would say.  Storytelling is adversity telling and adversity lived (even if extrapolated) is realistic and engrossing.  Adversity only imagined is half-baked.  But stories are adversity and conflict rooted because it is what people who have lived can relate to.  It is also best for children to read and learn.

Now, I have said nothing about how an easy life might interfere with good storytelling.  No doubt a life that cannot seriously relate to adversity will be hampered in the art.  Does that mean all true artists must suffer?  Not necessarily, but adversity, at least in storytelling, is more likely to produce genius, or if not genius, authenticity.

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