Earlier this month, I was asked to read and give feedback on a friend’s work. We caught up over the weekend to discuss it, and after I ran through my notes, I concluded with what I thought was the most important point – “it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough of you in the story”.

She was confused. The novel was a period piece, set in America during the early 19th century. Why would she, a 30 year-old marketing assistant from Brisbane, Australia, be “in the story”?

Her response reminded me of feedback I received when learning to write short stories. Friends and family who read them would always comment “this is so you”.

It meant they liked it, and I was glad.

My friend’s novel, on the other hand, was not her. It was research. Every move the characters made, every word they spoke, could be backed by extensive details and facts about the times in which the story was set. She’d spent so much time on these aspects, she’d missed one crucial element:

Empathy.

Great art derives from personal reflection on the world, and that reflection is driven by experience, not logical assumption and reasoning. The artist ‘people watches’, they travel, they put themselves in complex and unfamiliar situations. They are searching for understanding. They are searching for themselves. And in knowing themselves, they find the threads from which their work is spun.

Stephen King sets many of his great stories in Maine because his history there has informed a unique impression of local lifestyles. Louise Bourgeois’s mother wasn’t a spider, but her iconic statues were inspired by the contorted matriarchal attributes she alone saw reflected in the woman.

An artist must be able to connect with every element of their work to understand its value in the greater whole. Consider George R. R. Martin, whose novels have found popularity in no small part due to the author’s propensity for killing major characters. His reasoning is not commercial. It’s not driven by historical data. The reason Martin’s characters die is because that is the reality of the gripping fantasy land he conjured in his head.

“You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done.”

Of course, a line must be drawn at some stage. Many artists, when first starting out, are driven by selfishness. A common trap writers in particular fall into is creating a character who is a mirror image of themselves, who through the course of the story is rewarded with everything the writer wants in their own life: success, fame, love, power, money. Readers can tell when an artist is creating work as a means of fantasy fulfillment, and that often turns them off.

When I told my friend that there wasn’t enough of her in the story, what I was saying is that she hadn’t given me a reason to care. It may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.

At the end of the day, art without self is nothing more than appropriation of a mundane world. It’s genetic, tired, and meaningless.

Audiences do not consume art because it reflects the world they know. They consume it because it offers a new perspective. It offers a new energy, a new belief, a new meaning. And that must all come from the artist.

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