I am a cynic. Not a miserable grouch who doesn’t like anything, but a person who questions things, questions everything. I am passionate about many things but I also have doubt and trepidation about many things. The way I view being a cynic is not as a critic, but as someone who looks for the truth.
All great works of art tell the truth, this doesn’t just mean non-fiction, documentary or a true story but in a work of fiction also, a painting or a song the truth is there. This is a universal truth, something meaningful to others.
You need to ask yourself, what speaks to you? When you read a good book or story or article is it good because of the words used, the poetic structure, and the fully formed characters? If truth is there all of that matters, but it is beyond the writing on a technical or creative level and in the message and how that message is relayed to the reader.
I have always loved writing, when in school we had “story writing time” which was often when the teacher didn’t know what else to do, I loved it. When the teacher asked what we’d like to do I was always straight in there asking to write. I’ve always been creative in many ways, being a writer was one of my dreams, I make music, I take photos, paint and make films but as I grew older writing got pushed to the background. I eventually found a career in social care and as a once voracious reader of fiction found my reading habits turned to sociology, psychology and journals in my field and all related to my work. I grew up loving horror, movies and books and I wanted to do that, create horror stories but over time that dream faded, I eventually wrote my first book which was non-fiction about my career working with people with learning disabilities.
During the process I had more self-doubt than I had for years, I wondered is this good enough? Can I really tell these stories? Does anyone care what I have to say? But I knew I had to write it, whether I published it or not, it must be finished.
I did finish, and publish. What I learned the most was that the book had to tell the truth, my truth, the truth about my work, it had to be honest and that lead me to realise that all art, particularly writing must be honest.
As a natural cynic I’m very hard to argue with. Cynicism can protect us from what’s real, things should be questioned but often the cynic won’t take on what they need due to over-questioning, this comes close to narcissism, to an egocentric way of not having to deal with something they don’t like the idea of, I’m right and you’re wrong. The cynic criticises, which is valuable but the cynic can miss what is truly important. But ultimately, the cynic looks for truth, if the cynic has eyes open, they will be the first to see the truth.
This penchant has lead me to be highly critical, particularly of people. The inspiration for my writing has been people, the people I have worked with, the people I know and anyone I encounter or observe in my day to day experience and I try to write about the truth of experience and what I see.
What has made me good at my job is an ability to read people, I analyse behaviour whether it be a person with Autism presenting behaviours that challenge us, or whether it be managing a staff team I employ the same skills. Life is essentially just behaviour analysis, every day in every interaction we are assessing each other’s behaviour, finding ways to communicate, creating and resolving conflict. Some people do this very naturally, other’s need to work harder at it, the writer see’s this, the writer can articulate this continuous cycle of interactions and problem solving, and put this into a story so the rest of us can also understand it. This is the truth I’m talking about, the truth of the world, the reality of how people behave and interact, how people want and need, how people love and hate. You can relate this truth through a fantasy about dragons, or a horror about demons or a comedy of errors or a romance. Sometimes the truth of things can be better related through fiction, abstracting concepts and putting them into an epic poem or a historic saga may help people to see what you’re saying.
Many people can be disdainful of what might be “low art” or “trashy” but honestly, I enjoy Transformers as much as I like Stanley Kubrick films, I like pulp horror and detective novels as much as I like Thomas Pynchon, they offer different things but what always appeals in any work of art is that universal truth about ourselves, our behaviour, the human condition. George Orwell’s animal farm may feature animals as it’s protagonists but it’s considered a classic because it tells the reality of how humans behave, which is why it speaks to us. Think about your favourite book and you’ll probably find the same. When writing, this is what I seek to do, and what I hope others see in my work.
I won’t try to offer advice to other writers, I’m still learning myself, but in everything I do I consider the philosophy of it, the values that underpin it and why I do what I do whether it be an impulse or a well thought out process, all writers should assess this in their work, what are you trying to say?
Rick Jensen has worked in the field of Learning Disabilities and Autism for over 15 years as behaviour and service development specialist. His first book “Being a Support Worker” is about this work. Rick also writes for his own blog The Everyday Behaviour Analyst and is working on his next book which is a collection of short pieces about how people behave collected from the blog and unpublished pieces.