Bridging the personal and the universal

A key component in great writing is building bridges between the personal and the universal.

Without specific incarnation, universals revert to truisms. The insight you’re trying to articulate may be foundational, but cliché drains it of color and weight. Aphorisms can blaze bright on social media because aspiration is a potent fuel for sharing, but often they fade in readers’ hearts just as quickly because there just isn’t enough to hold on to.

Without plugging into the universal—even if the extension cord is long and tangled—personal stories won’t turn on a light in readers’ minds. Your anecdote might be funny or charming, but if there isn’t something there that connects to the human experience, that connects us, then why should we make time to read it?

As a writer, you can work in either direction. In Breach, a piece of pottery illuminates the novel’s underlying theme. In Veil, the arc of the protagonist’s evolving relationship with her father mirrors humanity’s evolving relationship with the planet. In Cumulus, the freelance photographer’s struggle to make a living with her art opens a window into the systems shaping the gig economy.

When a story integrates the personal and the universal, it becomes an emotional flywheel that moves the reader, offering them a new perspective of lasting value, subtly or profoundly changing them into someone new.

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Complement with The PathA pop band that talks about complicated emotions, and Cultivating a sense of presence.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.