Friday, August 7, 2015

When You Tell Your Truth and No One Wants to Hear It: How Honest Can You Be in Your Writing?

A writer from New York emailed me:  "I'm learning how to create from who I am, show up and connect to readers," she said.  "I get stuck because I'm not good at the connection part. The mistake that I often make is that people say be honest and authentic - tell me what you are thinking and feeling and I do and they don't connect with my reality. I show up and people don't understand and I get stuck."

Honesty in writing is much-heard advice.  You need to be authentic on the page, because readers can spot a fake a mile away.  But then, what's the balance with knowing your reader, and knowing how to talk with that reader?  This writer asks a good question.

She says more:  "I've discovered that showing up in one's own authenticity works fine as long as you fit into society. When your story is outside of ordinary experience and/or challenges prevailing views of reality, then one has to figure out adaptations that are consistent with authenticity while also extending into readers' way of seeing the world so that a connection can be found."

I used to teach a class called "Writing through Healing."  It was based on James Pennebaker's research on how the simple act of writing can heal.  Writing that's authentic has three components:

1.  It reveals the facts of the situation, using details that evoke the senses.
2.  It shows how the writer felt then.
3.  It shows how the writer feels now about what happened.

Each of us can do one or more of these, but it's rare to find a writer who does them all.  But I've learned that until all three are present, the alchemy cannot happen--either for writer or reader.

In my classes, a writer might draft an intimate scene about something traumatic.  Anything from lying to stealing to death to abuse, and everything in between.  Each of us has suffered trauma.  Our stories are important.

At first, most drafts include one end of the spectrum.  Either the writer enters from what I call the "inner story," and writes about the feelings and memories in an abstract, conceptual way.   Or the writer will lay out all the details, unafraid of the facts.  My job is to coach the other aspect into being.  Interestingly enough, the tears begin (in both writer and reader) when all three elements are finally on the page.  And it truly becomes healing.

Say you've practiced this.  Your writing is beginning to include all three elements.  You've worked on bringing in the scene details (time of day or year or season, smells and sounds) and the movements of players on the stage (what actually happened) to satisfy point #1.  You've thought about how you felt then--terrorized, enraged, incredibly sad--and you've begun to show this on the page, perhaps by gesture, body sensation, how you moved or stayed very still.  That satisfies point #2.  You've also allowed yourself to compare how you are now, with how you were then.  Even one line slipped in, brings that #3 point to play.

You're ready to workshop this, see how it reads to others.  The litmus test.

Choose your readers wisely.  Very wisely.  At this stage, you don't need people to get hung up on what happened to you, begin to pity or avoid you, or--worse--suggest you tone down the drama.  For this first exposure reading after you've incorporated the three points, above, you need feedback on their ratios.  How much drama is present, and is there enough of the other two points to balance it?  Have you made your own reactions invisible, so the reader can't understand why you let yourself go through this?  (Some of us don't have a choice, granted.  But on the page, readers need to see your reasoning, your presence, not your numbness.)

You need someone who will (1) not make light of your trauma, (2) but not overly react to just the trauma facts.  See it as writing, not as your life--in other words.  To you, it is your life.  To the reader, it has to be a good story.

Because we are after good writing here, right?  I think of some of the most admired trauma stories--All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, about two victims of World War II;  White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, about a girl whose mother murders her boyfriend; The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, about a child growing up with insane parents; The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, about the horrors of the Vietnam War; and so many others.   

What took these stories beyond the personal, into the universal?  First, the elegant balancing of the three points above.  Good crafting with a kind readership that could get beyond the trauma into the writing.  And finally, the release of the story to the reader when it was ready.    

We write what we're given to write.  It's your story.  It's yours to tell. 

You may get to the place of 0ne of my students, writing about her horrific abuse, who initially told her readers to go f*ck themselves when they objected to her descriptions.  Her fierceness has carried her through to a final--and very strong--draft, but only when she found a group of equally fierce readers who could handle her rage on the page.  Her advice:  If you get messages to tone it down, find yourself a different group.  They are out there.  Stay true to your voice, your story. 

I agree.  But I'll add:  Make sure you are writing through to healing, using the technique above, improving your craft skills, and releasing the writing itself to a larger purpose, not just your own.     

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