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The Writer’s Mind: An Insatiable Appetite for Understanding

Photo by Flickr user Marco Bellucci [1]
Photo by Flickr user Marco Bellucci

A few weeks ago, during a conversation about my random thoughts and anxieties, a friend of mine said, in good humour, “Your problem is that you always want to know why things happen, instead of just accepting that they’ve happened.”

The conversation went on, and many other things were discussed, but that observation has stayed with me. It’s gone round and around in my head, building itself a nice little condo in the back of my mind and showing up uninvited at inappropriate times. Why has it stayed with me? Because, no matter how lovingly it was presented, the word “problem” made me feel that this is a character flaw; that my desire to understand the hows, whys, and wherefores of people and events makes me somehow weaker than someone who simply accepts that things happen without question.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve travelled down many a dark road — ones all too familiar to those people who resonated with Mike Swift’s brilliant article [2] a few days ago. I’m writing about this topic today not because I’ve found the light at the end of the tunnel, but because thinking about the journey I’ve been on has thrown up more questions than answers. And, as we all know, it’s questions that inspire us to write. If we had all the answers, we wouldn’t feel the need to sit and write 80,000 words about them.

Things happen because…

First of all, let me start by saying that my friend is absolutely correct. I do always want to understand the why of things. And not in a shallow superficial way, but in a deep, “what happened to this person when they were younger to prompt them to behave and believe in such a manner today?” kind of way. To be honest, I used to think this desire to understand the deep motivations of other people was a natural part of being human; something everyone did instinctively. But, as it turns out, this is not the case.

There are three main responses I get when I talk to people about wanting to understand why people do the things they do.

  1. Sometimes things just happen.
    This phrase has always felt, to me, like a phrase that could be used offensively against a room full of physicists with devastating results.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
    I hear this phrase used a lot, and always mentally add the clarifier: “And the reason is that other things happened first.”
    Note: Often people using this explanation are finding comfort in religious belief. Which is wonderful and not at all to be dismissed. But I have to assume that, in this case, the “reason” is that God or the universe or whatever spiritual agency involved has previously done things to ensure this new thing happens.
  3. Things happen because other things happened first.

Now, don’t get me wrong, looking for understanding is not the same as finding it. But, to paraphrase one of life’s bumper stickers, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.

So, do I have a Problem?

There is a lot to be said for acceptance — for accepting that things are as they are, and we may not have control over them. Certainly, it brings a great deal of peace. But there is a difference between acceptance and blind acceptance; between taking things as they stand, and wilfully choosing not to understand, or even seek to understand, how they came to be that way.

In fact, isn’t that the entire purpose of storytelling? We, as writers, send our readers on journeys of understanding and empathy.

We don’t just want to see Frodo throw a piece of jewelry into a volcano, we want to experience his journey along the way. We want to taste the evil he’s trying to destroy; to feel his fear and uncertainty; to understand how he overcame his feeling of being smaller (literally and figuratively) than all the grand heroes around him, and succeeded at his quest.

Likewise, we don’t want to find ourselves in conversation with Elizabeth Bennet as she tells us that she and Mr Darcy are never, ever, ever getting back together, and then suddenly find ourselves invited to their wedding.

No one would read a story where things just happen at random, and reason has not been invited to the party.

Maybe it’s a Writer Thing

Maybe my need to understand the why of the people around me isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it’s just a thing. In fact, maybe it’s just a writer thing.

I’ve read plenty of first drafts written by new(ish) writers where characters take completely incomprehensible actions. Not just incomprehensible to me, but incomprehensible, apparently, to both the writer and the characters themselves. In fact, back in the I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing days, I’ve been that writer.

Greg swept the hair off his face and dropped to one knee. “Mary, I love you. I’ve always loved you. Will you marry me?”

Mary stared at her partner of six years in horror. “No!” she yelled. She turned and ran out of the room, tears running down her face.

Look, my actual version of the above included significantly more magic and (a little) less melodrama, but the fact is that when a critique partner asked me why Mary was so horrified about the proposal, the best answer I had was, “Because she doesn’t agree to marry him until the last chapter.”

If I were writing that scene today, I’d damn well make sure I understood why Mary said no. Maybe her parents had a nasty, messy divorce when she was a small child, and as it dragged on through the courts, getting nastier and messier, she came to believe that true love can’t survive the reality of marriage. Or maybe she was cursed by an evil sorcerer, and any man she marries will die a painful death. Whatever floats your boat. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is — it only matters that there is a reason. The reader doesn’t need to know it (right now), the character doesn’t need to know it (consciously), but the writer absolutely, definitely, 100% needs to know it.

Practice Makes Perfect

Ray Bradbury famously postulated that you need to write 1,000,000 “practice” words  before you get to the good stuff. Whether or not that arbitrary figure is correct, the point is well made: to be a great writer, you need to practice. And so we hurl ourselves into the word mines day after day, confident that, eventually, all our hard work will pay off and we’ll strike a rich vein of… wordiness? My metaphor’s wearing thin. Nevertheless, we understand that practice makes perfect, or a close facsimile thereof.

But how do we practice the inimitable skill of backstory?

We can use our wordsmithing to practice flashbacks and revealing backstory through dialogue, action, and blank spaces. But that’s not the same thing as practicing the art of developing backstory; of delving into the innermost motivations of our characters, and immersing ourselves into the various traumas and tribulations that have built their core beliefs about themselves and the world.

But, do you know what helps?

Trying (and often failing) to understand the Whys of ourselves and the people around us. It’s impossible to really know what lurks at the heart of men (to coin a phrase), but the process of trying to understand — of looking at values and beliefs and behaviours and speculating about their origins — makes us more empathic. And that, in turn, makes us better writers. Which makes us better at understanding the motivations of others.

It’s life imitating art imitating life and so on, ad nauseam. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

So, why did that one sentence uttered by a friend affect me so deeply? Maybe because when past relationships have fallen apart, ex-partners have told me that I ask too many questions. Maybe because, at a deep and unconscious level, I internalised the idea that I’m “different” and somehow “lacking” from a young age. Maybe because, if I look deeply enough, I’ll find a single moment of personal trauma that defined my world-view as a seeker rather than an acceptor.

And I can accept that.

Do you find yourself wondering why people do the things they do, and speculating on the answers? Have you ever been called on it? And does doing so make you a stronger writer?




About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.