The writer’s task

A friend messaged me the other day about an idea he had for a book to write. He wanted my opinion. He thought maybe a book about presidents and their private interactions and personal acts of humanity, gleaned from things like private correspondences with unknown citizens, phone calls, secret visits, etc, etc. The kind of thing that a president had wanted to keep private.

It’s a great idea. And my friend is quite capable of writing that book if he so chooses. Biographers, I thought, spend years searching for just such private correspondences and actions in their attempt to understand the inner life of their subject.

Of course I immediately thought about the writer’s task in writing a book such as this. It’s a book about character, as all good (in the classical conception) novels, good biographies, or books about the secret life of a U.S. president, are. It’s a book about the quality of a soul. And the process of deep reading, and especially writing, about the inner life and character of another human being, makes us examine our own souls. Inside you’re asking yourself questions about your own motives and intentions. My friend had asked for a suggestion about who his subject should be.

As for suggestions, I can’t think of one right now, but I would consider…a President you didn’t necessarily agree with politically. It’s often more interesting, in my view, to discover we share common views and a very common humanity with people or Presidents who we’ve reflexively disagreed with because of our upbringing, inherited politics, and culture….Or what we’ve been told by others and accepted, rather than from what we’ve felt and learned with authentic attention and care. For example, let’s say you want to write a book like that, then I suggest maybe you begin by reading former President Obama’s new memoir coming out in November. Why? Not because you’ll agree with him, obviously not, but because your intention isn’t about agreement or disagreement but about whether you’re able to find sympathy with the humanity of people you disagree with. In some sense, it tests our ability to be honest with ourselves….and that’s much harder than we’d all like to believe.

I feel the writer’s first obligation is to truth. This is hard. Most of us are so conditioned by our environment and biases, that we’re simply unable (sometimes unwilling) to try and understand the world from the eyes of another soul. So he (my friend) should begin, I felt, by testing his own ability to be honest and objective about someone he knows he’ll disagree with. Can the writer absorb himself in the lives of others, with the intent to understand someone we often (or always) disagree with?…with what they did or the conclusions they reached?…or the mission they dedicated their life too?…and yet still find some genuine sympathy or agreement?—because it’s likely we will, and often it’s more so than we’d like others or ourselves to know.

And so to be a good writer—or a good observer of the world—and to prepare his mind for the quality of thinking and writing needed for this book about character, I felt my friend should begin by testing his own character. It’s hard work, but the results are felt by the reader on every page.

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