There are all kinds of reasons to write fiction—from catharsis to comfort to escapism. But lately, I keep thinking that one of the biggest reasons to write fiction is because of the fundamental unknowability of other human beings.
As I say in my new book Never Say You Can't Survive, the fundamental tragedy of being a human is that we are confined to a single viewpoint for our whole lives. We can only hear our own internal monologue, and experience our own sensorium. We can only witness our own lives, while we glimpse those of others. I wish we all had more empathy for each other—but even more than that, I wish we could just live inside each other's perspectives on a regular basis.
There's only one way to leave your own world and slide into someone else's: by reading (and maybe also by writing) books that go deeply into someone else's headspace—or into the headspace of multiple people.
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You can either know the forest of a person, or you can know the individual trees. It's nearly impossible to know both.
One of life's great underrated pleasures is finding out that you were totally wrong about someone else—even when this comes with disappointment or shame. Sometimes I find myself stewing about some slight that someone else inflicted on me, only to realize that the situation was, at least in good measure, my own fault.
And it can be, weirdly, a relief to realize that this other person didn't wish me ill, but also to gain a better understanding of their perspective. It's reassuring when the world reminds us that everyone else is faster and deeper than our day-to-day surface-level encounters can allow us to glimpse.
When I talk about the unknowability of other people, I'm really talking about two different things.
There's the thing I hinted at above, where you can't really ever see someone else's point of view and you can't know all the experiences that have shaped someone else. You can only glimpse their thought processes. And certainly, this is why reading a really good book can be superior to real life. It's the only way to really live in someone else's skin—and maybe even see a particular situation from multiple viewpoints, all of which you identify with and connect to.
But the other flavor of unknowability is a tad more complicated. We tend to encounter people as sharp outlines at first, and then later we get close enough to see all the details. You might form a first impression of someone that boils down to "loudmouth bro," or "angry political activist," or "party girl."
The weird thing is, once you're close enough to see more of the complexity of someone's behaviors and attitudes and everything else, it's harder to sum them up. If you have to give your impression of someone you only met for five minutes, that's usually pretty easy. But when you're describing someone you've known for years, in a variety of different situations, this suddenly becomes harder. You can still try to sum that person up, but you'll know that you're leaving out a lot, and you might not entirely believe in that simple description anymore.
In other words, you can either know the forest of a person, or you can know the individual trees. It's nearly impossible to know both.
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There's a passage in A Ripple From the Storm by Doris Lessing that I think about often, in which she talks about this conundrum. Martha Quest is hanging out with some of her fellow Communist revolutionaries in post-World War II Zimbabwe, and she thinks about how she would describe Anton, their leader. She realizes that it's too hard to encapsulate him, as a person, in a single passage of prose. The best she can do is to paint a picture of him in one moment, showing all of the details of his affect and his expression, and give a sense of how he appears right now.
One of the many reasons I love Doris Lessing so much is that her work is full of these little moments of observing people and trying to make sense of them—and an appreciation for just how slippery a process this is most of the time.
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When you write a story, of course, you try to describe each character for the first time in as vivid a way as possible: not just what they look like, but a hint of how they act and how their personality comes across. You want to create a first impression, the same as when you're meeting someone else in real life, and ensure that this character sticks in the reader's mind.
But increasingly, I think about how to complicate and trouble those first impressions in the characters I write—how to make you see these people anew, all over again, as the story progresses. When you've spent some time with a character, you can start to notice more about them and realize that there's more to them than you first realized. The most interesting characters become more and more contradictory and contrary as you see them in various situations.
I also try to do the thing that Lessing talks about in A Ripple From the Storm, finding little moments to focus on a character intensely from time to time. They might not even reframe or challenge your understanding of who a character is, necessarily—they might just make you see the character again, and give you a clear mental image of this person. Their body language, the tone of their voice, the way they hold their drink in their hand, plus any smells or textures that the narrator is aware of.
Those moments of seeing someone clearly come all too seldom in real life, when we're all stressed and distracted. Even when we're not isolated from each other by a pandemic, we don't often get the chance to stop and take a look at other people. Which is why it's so great that we have books to give us an unreal experience of absolutely real human connection.
Never Say You Can't Survive
The world is on fire.
So tell your story.
Things are scary right now. We’re all being swept along by a tidal wave of history, and it’s easy to feel helpless. But we’re not helpless: we have minds, and imaginations, and the ability to visualize other worlds and valiant struggles. And writing can be an act of resistance that reminds us that other futures and other ways of living are possible.
Full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish during the present emergency, Never Say You Can’t Survive is the perfect manual for creativity in unprecedented times.