Another Kind of Writer's Journey
by Terry Persun
Like most writers, I started out being an avid reader: from the time my parents read children’s books to me, to the first short stories my brother introduced me to, to the first novels I checked out of our school library. Even as a child, my interests were broad, and I would read everything from mysteries to science fiction and science to biographies. My brother was five years older than me and allowed me to read whatever books he read. It took a few years before I got there, but when I did, it was great. I read and learned to love poetry while in grade school. I read spiritually-oriented books because my uncle would send us boxes of books he’d read. I read tons of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs – including John Carter of Mars and Tarzan – because both my parents enjoyed those books.
I started out reading just for pleasure, but eventually started reading with deeper insight. I recall reading about an Army sergeant, and how difficult it was for him when he had to kill enemy soldiers. The story gave me insight into how people force themselves to do something that is against their moral code – even though the crime is aimed at someone who is an enemy. In other stories, I learned how a murderer feels and why he might have gotten to the point in life where he believed in what he was doing. In a well-written story, it’s easy to see both sides of a situation.
As I grew older, I began to question people who did things I wouldn’t think of doing – like get into fights, break up with someone, steal. I wanted to learn their motivations, their thought processes, the emotions they channeled and then had to fight back. Developing a better understanding others is not done only through reading, of course. Such knowledge can be accumulated through watching television, movies, plays, or by listening to music. I began to learn how different we each are by asking questions of my relatives, friends, and, eventually, people I got to know at work.
When I started writing seriously, I realized that I’d have to get inside the head of every character I wrote about. To create conflict, I often had to write about people who had beliefs that opposed mine, which taught me different ways of approaching and overcoming challenges. If I wanted to understand my villains, I had to become them – at least during my writing time. I couldn’t put my moral values or my beliefs into every one of my characters, or I’d just be writing a book where there was no real story or conflict.
After years of writing characters that I wanted to know more about and wanted to learn to understand, I began to realize how the writing had infused itself into my life. I was more interested in others, yes, but I was also more tolerant, better able to forgive, and more resilient when opposed. After all, it was only their belief, not mine. I didn’t have to take on whatever the other person believed in order to understand him or her and to accept them as they were.
All this leads to one thing: if there is anything I learned from writing, it is empathy. But the learning doesn’t stop with mere understanding. Just having the ability to understand and share feelings others might have also allows me to be graceful around others; it allows me to forgive them. Understanding leads to the ability to stand in one’s own space, and that ability leads to allowing others to do the same.