Writing and Knowing People

by Suzi Rhee

“What’s in your secret heart?” a professor recently wrote on my creative nonfiction homework.

At first I laughed. Secret heart? Please.

Then I thought about what it meant for the piece. Under a mass of scenes about me drawing on a sidewalk, deep desires roiled and demanded attention. Those longings, as I began to identify them, left me uncomfortable and vulnerable. Attention, affirmation, acceptance, belonging, and love. And I was using chalk to express this desire? “My secret heart wants stupid things,” I decided.

But those “stupid things” are what every human desires. They hide behind and control every word we speak, every choice we make, and every act we perform.

Understanding the “secret heart” means seeing past the action to the primal desire beneath it—the relatable aspect that can make us sympathize with even the villain. In creative nonfiction, the desires are clearly revealed to the reader. In fiction, the writer must identify these needs and desires, but they cannot state them. “Johnny just wants to feel loved by someone,” would never make its way into a bestseller, but “Johnny will slay the dragon/overthrow the corrupt president/become a vampire to get glory/revenge/the girl,” is a story the audience will follow.

Glory, revenge, and romance are all motivations a layer just above the secret heart—the ones that you can express without vulnerability. You know what compels them, and you imply it in your writing. This provides consistency of characterization that your writing needs, and provides the reader with a seamless transition from real life, where such vulnerabilities are rarely stated except in the quietest of confidence, into the world of your story.

So I reevaluated my piece. Why did I sit and draw on the sidewalk? I wanted to make something beautiful. I wanted to make something that would be noticed. I wanted to make someone stop and say, “Good job.” Because ultimately, I wanted affirmation and acceptance. As “stupid” or needy as that sounded, those desires resonate universally.

Writing is a way of understanding self and others. It is a way of connecting to people of any age or background because they can identify with a character and understand why they would risk everything to achieve a goal. It teaches people to, after reading a work, look at the world around them and learn to empathize with and love the people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. By understanding and meeting the needs of others, we become ever more so the loving servants following in our Lord’s footsteps.

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