Why writers need a shot at a warm and generous heart

We are all flawed. Faced with this, it’s all too easy to resort to complaint, criticism and even cynicism. But tearing things apart doesn’t motivate change, it just leaves destruction, hurt and anger in its wake.

In Anne Lamott’s most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway, she asserts:

Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.

The story tellers

Writers need a shot at a warm and generous heart because we are the ones telling the stories. Whether it’s the story of

  • how the universe or technology works
  • a life that illuminates humanity
  • a science fiction or crime thriller that gives us insight into the human condition and our connectedness
  • or a poem that reflects on an overwhelming emotion at the heart of everyone

we are the ones shaping the dough of reality and humanity into the story-bread. Will our story-bread nourish or poison those who read it?

This is not to say that our stories should all be La-la Land illusions of a world that is sugar and spice and all things nice. Our stories might be of incredible deprivation and cruelty or of tremendous struggle that end in ambiguity. But it is to suggest that they should come from a heart that cares, that has empathy for even the most flawed characters in our novels, that resonates with even the most difficult emotions in our poetry.

As Bertrand Russell says in Education and the Good Life:

Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it. … We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy.

The flawed tellers

Writers need a shot at a warm and generous heart. But we don’t need to be perfect. Being aware of how we need to develop and become a different story should not be an act of self flagellation, but a joyful project of self-love. Lamott is right to note that not only is kindness crucial, but that it’s vital to extend it to ourselves. We don’t get warm and generous through engaging in a fight to the death between willpower and self-loathing.

Nor does the pursuit of compassion and generosity entail tolerating abuse or relationships that diminish us. Sometimes, no matter how much mercy we are able to feel, there are relationships in which we realise it’s more life-affirming to wish the other person well, but need to move on. Some relationships will always be a losing scenario of pouring our energies into negative cycles of reaction, blaming and trying to change someone who has no interest in changing.

And of course, having a warm and generous heart does not mean condoning atrocities so unspeakable that we struggle to make sense of them. (Some events leave us bewildered about where lines of moral responsibility, evil and the unforgivable might be drawn, a topic brilliantly illustrated in the conversation between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt in Between Friends, after Arendt’s publication of The Banality of Evil.)

The mercy tellers

Notwithstanding that we don’t want to self-delude nor stay in relationships that harm us, nor trivialise atrocities, it remains the case that, in an everyday sense, real transformation and progress only happen when we are not on the defensive, when we feel loved, seen, heard and valuable and when we extend the same graciousness to others.

In the normal course of life we do well to take the extraordinary philosopher Simone Weil seriously when she says in The First and Last Notebook:

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

Fyodor Dostoevsky says it with power in A Writer’s Diary:

A true friend of [hu]mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.

[…]

Judge [others] not by what they are, but by what they strive to become.

Let’s return again to that central question:

Why is it particularly essential that writers should cultivate warm and generous hearts?

Because we write

  • about the human condition in all its incarnations
  • not as judges, but as observes, witnesses, and those who allow understanding to grow and flourish
  • flawed characters, not only because perfect ones are boring but because, by writing of flaws with empathy and kindness, we change human relations and the future
  • because our lives as writers and as humans will be so much richer for it

The generous tellers

This is the wonderful Annie Dillard in The Writing Life:

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around.

When we live out of abundance rather than scarcity, life is transformed. This is not a matter of economics or somehow conning the universe to make you rich by visualising luxury cars each day. This is about a quality of living that connects us with the numinous.

When the philosopher, Simone Weil, was dying from tuberculosis she refused to eat more each day than the rations given to her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France. Albert Camus called her, “the only great spirit of our times”. Writing in The Rebel, he goes on:

This insane generosity is the generosity of rebellion, which unhesitatingly gives the strength of its love and without a moment’s delay refuses injustice. Its merit lies in making no calculations, distributing everything it possesses to life and to living [wo]men. It is thus that it is prodigal in its gifts to [wo]men to come. Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.

Generosity not only brings us full circle back to compassion, but also back to those underlying attitudes of slowing down and being present. This is what Simone Weil wrote herself, in First and Last Notebooks:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

And she elucidates further, in Gravity and Grace:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them … Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem? Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud [wo]man. It is the result of a mistake.

[…]

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Read that again.

Attention is […] the purest form of generosity [and …] unmixed attention is prayer.

I want that engraved on my soul.

This is not an article of creed but the most humane way in which we connect — to the cosmos, to others, to ourselves. We do this by slowing down and paying attention; this is the essence of being generous.

  • You cannot lack compassion if you live from a wellspring of generosity.
  • You cannot be full of pride and hubris if you relax into the grace of generosity. It is a letting go that is filled with humility.
  • You cannot be full of fear when you are generous: it is the courage to give no matter what the world says.
  • You cannot be hard and impervious when you are generous; giving renders you vulnerable.

We are brought full circle back to Anne Lamott’s insight from Hallelujah Anyway:

Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.

Be generous, for all that is life-giving’s sake, be generous. And, if you are a writer, for the sake of the story-bread you bake from the dough of life, be generous.

Call to become your story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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