There is a concept in writing that ranks for me among the most difficult. You may not think so in reading my blog – I tend to be “confessional,” as one reader put it, and I’m glad to hear that said about my writing because the truth of the matter, if truth be told, is that Truth is among the most difficult aspects of writing to master.
Most of us have heard somewhere that Art consists, at least in part, of Truth and Beauty, and that these concepts suggest universal characteristics of the human condition which largely cannot be argued. In considering the values of these concepts, however, I continue to find myself challenged to achieve an expression of truth which satisfies not only me as the writer, but satisfies more importantly (or at least as importantly) the reader.
So, what is this truth we speak of?
I don’t mean to open the worm-can of relevance, I am not seeking to answer the question of “whose truth?” I only desire to better understand the goal of truth inasmuch as achieving it leads to better writing – especially in fiction. There is a reason the concept of truth must be mastered, and that is because in truth is believability, and without believability there is no trust between writer and reader.
Truth in creative writing means getting the details right, portraying the events of the story honestly. When we infuse our writing with euphemisms and cliches we are avoiding the truth: the truth of detail, the truth of an original experience, and the truth of our unique perspectives. Why do we avoid capturing the truth of our story if it means so much? Two reasons: Fear and Laziness.
Perhaps the most insidious of our challenges, fear is the thing that stops us cold from putting down that phrase which will expose us as something other than what our friends and family thought we were. Fear stops us from facing the things that make us uncomfortable. Violence, sex, desire, ecstasy, pain, the more fearful we are of controversial things in our personal lives perhaps the more fearful we are in our writing. No one wants to be judged negatively, and artists are especially subject, and sensitive, to judgement. If fear rules our writing then we automatically fail to reach our potential. We believe it better to say nice things, avoid the nasty, gritty details, live and let live, etc.
Here’s something to think about, though: nice is boring.
Yes writing the truth is hard, and yes, one must go deep to get at the ore of truth to put it on the page. Sometimes the experience is upsetting, or arousing, as we get in touch with what is real about being human. But these emotions are the energy of good writing, and the fact that we feel them means we have found something to say.
One of the best ways to approach first draft writing is head long and mindless. Get it out there, as fast as you can, and worry about corrections, spelling, maybe even punctuation later (I am not this free-wheeling, but I still write first drafts pretty fast). At some point, however, if you want your writing to sizzle and pop, you’re going to have to go back and make things better. When you come to a passage in the revision that reads “she stood by the water and watched the orange sunset as it sank over the horizon” don’t leave it like that! Make the disc of the sun extinguish in the glittering locks of a black stream or something reasonably original before moving on. Better yet, dig deeper and find a way to connect the setting sun with something meaningful to the story. Tie the black stream to the protagonist’s sister’s hair, the setting sun to the end of her life due to illness, murder, suicide, disappearance, or the end of the sibling relationship. I don’t know, it’s your story, just write it so I can appreciate it. Whatever you do don’t let the hard work of writing go by the wayside because of laziness. Find the truth of the moment. Get the details, the emotion, the sentiments right.
Avoiding the truth happens at the moment of conception. As soon as the writer begins filling the page there are choices to make: stop before saying something too real, edit it right away, or let all of the scary, ugly stuff out and deal with how you feel about it in revision.
I believe it is far easier to edit down than to edit up. If I write an overly descriptive scene of a powerful and perhaps disturbing moment in the story, without censoring it, without worrying about it, I am more likely to get the right feel and the right detail to make it work appropriate to the story via later revisions. This may not be true for you, but I still recommend writing much more than you’ll keep. You’ll likely end up with plenty of material and room to revise without having to do the extra lifting of adding filler.
Lastly, recognize that your writer persona is at least a little separate from who you are in-person. A friend of mine mentioned to me this weekend that my writing “doesn’t even sound like you” by which she meant that I don’t exactly talk like I write. Certainly this is true of most of us. When we communicate in-person there’s not much editing and revision going on. Our body language, our tone of voice, the casual way we talk about subjects forgotten ten minutes later all create a dynamic much different from what is on the page.
Writing is where we get a chance to revise our thoughts before we share them with company. Of course, once we’ve written things down and then released them into the wild we can’t take them back. But this is not a reason to fear the truth in our writing, it is the precise reason we must write the truth. Writing has a permanence that speaking does not. We don’t have much opportunity to make our truth as beautiful when speaking as we do when writing.
So write freely, before anyone else sees it, and don’t fear what you have to say. The truth, after all, is ours, and we have a right – as writers perhaps an obligation – to speak it.
We can always change the names later to protect the guilty.