Every great story has a bit of Truth in it. Personal truth, societal truth, the truth of humanity, something that the writer has learned. Such as the unlimited and pure love a mother feels for her child. Or the sadness a father feels when his children have grown up and don’t need him anymore, when they abandon him for their own loves and lives.
A frequent theme throughout life is someone giving up their life to save someone else, be it friend, family member or stranger. We see it in war, we see it when a building is burning down, we see it on the streets when complete strangers throw themselves on others to protect them from a sniper’s bullets. We think of that as the ultimate act of valor and compassion.
In a book I read about American soldiers in Iraq, there was this one young soldier that everyone in his platoon thought of as a screwup. They even expected him to be the first one to bail out of the humvee they road around together, if a grenade was thrown into. Then, one day, an eleven-year-old Iraqi boy threw a grenade into their humvee. Everyone stared at it, expecting to die. And this young man, who everyone thought of as a coward and a colossal screwup, flopped onto the grenade, saving the other four men in the vehicle and while his chest and abdomen were shredded by the blast. They couldn’t believe that he loved them so much, thought of them as family so much, that he sacrificed himself so they might live. They were so ashamed of themselves for previously thinking so poorly of him.
This giving up of your life for others is not a new thing. In the Bible, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about truth in writing. I just finished reading a book by Molly Guptill Manning titled, “When Books Went to War: the stories that helped us win world war two.” The United States in particular, and the Allies in general, didn’t just save the great art works in Europe from destruction by the Nazis, but they fought Fascism with books. From the 1930s through the end of World War 2, the Nazis burned more than one hundred million books. Anything that opposed hatred and fear, anything against Fascism, was destroyed. Not just great novels and plays, but Bibles, copies of the Qu’ran, even copies of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s (pronounced “Lou See”) Tao Te Ching. Anthing that uplifted humanity, they destroyed.
So the United States printed small little pocket books to entertain and enrich the lives of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen throughout the world. It was not just a war of strategies, a war of weapons and violence and destruction, it was a war of ideas. Just as the war against ISIS is a war of ideas.
The Nazis destroyed more than 100 million books, but the United States printed more than 123 million books and sent them overseas, first to American enlisted men and women, then to some of our Allies, and then to some of the emptied-out libraries in liberated countries.
I recommend every writer read Molly Manning’s book.
Books are more than just platforms for stories. More than just a means for making money. More than just for entertainment. They can help you process your life. They can lift you up. Then can teach you about yourself and others. They can lift you up out of the dull and deceptive world we sometimes seem to live in.
In the introduction to Manning’s book, in a young Marine’s letter to author Betty Smith, who wrote the classic “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a book now almost forgotten, he tells her that at age 20, he had seen and felt such suffering that he was a hardened and cynical man, incapable loving anybody or anything, that he was dead to the world and the world was dead to him.. Then, while confined to a field hospital bed, suffering from malaria, he read her book. He had read it twice and was so uplifted and so moved, he wrote, that he was re-reading it a third time. He explained that her book had released him from the hardness and hatred that he had felt and that he could live again.
Smith’s book is set in 1900 Brooklyn. It’s about a twelve-year old girl growing up in poverty. The father she loves and worships is a dreamer, but also an alcoholic. He can’t keep a job. Her mother works herself to the bone day after day, often working fourteen hours a day. When her father dies of pneumonia, it breaks her heart. But she continues on.
There’s a million billion stories like Smith’s book, throughout all history and throughout the whole world. And for this book to lift up a battle-hardened Marine, to give him hope for his future and life once more, that’s part of what every author should be aiming for.
Don’t just write about other people’s experiences, about the truth they’ve discovered. Write about what you’ve learned. Write to uplift. Adventures and action and romance and all these things are fine, but some character of yours somewhere in each story you write should have learned something about life, about moving forward, about personal growth, about living, about hoping, about loving.
Some authors want to bury the reader in the past, making the reader feel guilty for the suffering others endured. That’s not lifting up, that shaming people, that’s tearing them down. You can write about these things, but you have to find a way out of all the sadness and suffering that has gone before, for your characters’ sakes, and for your readers’ sakes, too.
What has happened in the past is in the past. The past is dead and so are its victims and victimizers. Don’t victimize your readers. They won’t love you for it, they’ll hate you for it. Then you, too, will be a victimizer.
When we watch adventure movies, movies with Indiana Jones in them, with Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, we have a great time. What lifts us up in these action movies? The heroes, their promises of overcoming evil with good, that they’re out there defending us. That we’re protected. That we’re safe. That someone will stand up for us.
We not only experience a great fictional adventure, but we come out feeling hopeful, for our day, for our future.
Hope is what refugees fleeing from war feel when they travel to a new country. Hope is what those whose houses are on fire or threatened by fire feel when they see firemen coming their way. Hope is what you feel when you’ve been lost in the wilderness and suddenly you spot a plane or a helicopter or someone coming toward you. Hope is what keeps farmers going when their crops have been destroyed by the weather, or insects, or the carelessness and selfishness of others. Hope of next year being better is what keeps farmers going.
Your characters have to have hope, even as you as writer has to have hope. You hope that the story you’re writing will be popular. That you’ll be recognized. That you’ll make money. That your audience will grow.
And what you need to put into your stories is hope. Your characters, no matter how awful what they’re experiencing is, need to have hope. Hope that things will get better. Hope that they will survive.
Yes, your characters need to suffer, as much as Jesus suffered carrying his cross to his crucifixion. But they have to have hope, too. Hope that their suffering will end.
So, put whatever truths you’ve learned about life, put them into your stories. Give them to some of your characters. Even Romeo and Juliet had hope that they might live together in love and peace. The fact that it didn’t work out for them makes the story much more dramatic. But let some of your characters learn, love, and have their hopes fulfilled. Don’t make it too easy for them, but don’t make it too impossible, too.
See you out there.