“There are two kinds of writers — the great ones who can give you
truths and the lesser ones, who can only give you themselves.”
We just passed a difficult anniversary in my family — a date that marked a very tragic event. Coincidentally (I say this, though I don’t really believe in coincidences), I came across a note that a dear friend sent me at the time. She had just experienced a deep loss herself and yet she reached out to offer love and support to me. In my book, she is the first kind of writer described in the quote above — a “great” one, because she reached beyond herself to offer truths that I found very consoling.
I once read that every great book has embedded within it a “metaphysical” message — some theme or conviction that transcends physical reality and lifts it into the realm of universal human experience. For me, this comment calls to mind classic works that have stood the test of time: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Gatsby.
As I look over this list, it seems to me that in each of these books, the writers gave us more than themselves — they shined a light on deep truths about the human condition in some bold and mysterious way. Think of the fight of Atticus Finch against the fear and prejudice all around him, Jane Eyre’s yearning to escape her past and build a new life, or the battle between the individual and the forces of destiny that’s played out so dramatically in A Tale of Two Cities.
When Dickens was writing a Tale, a friend supplied him with a huge box of books about the French Revolution. Dickens pored over them, absorbing all the background, but in the end, he chose to focus on one family’s fate in the face of huge events over which it had no control. By bringing the Revolution down to the human level, he not only made it real, he also offered a glimpse into what it means to be vulnerable and at risk in perilous times. When great writers give us truths, their characters hold up a mirror and reveal ourselves to us. That’s writing dangerously — and worth striving for in our own work.