(You Have Been Granted) Permission to Tell

sincere3Last night I read yet another list of things writers should consider about the writing process. This particular list comes via Walter Benjamin, a Twentieth Century philosopher of German and Jewish descent. Benjamin’s advice is excellent and, of the 13 things he lists, one in particular stands out to me because I had the very same thought two days ago. List item 11 states: “Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.” I identify the following two words as key in this valuable recommendation.

Familiar – Familiarity is an invisible lining over every aspect of our lives. We cannot see it most times, rarely think about it, and usually only reflect on it when it’s absent. For the writer striving to achieve raw and unedited authenticity, familiarity is a barrier to risk. Psychologically, the four walls of our sacred space are counterintuitive to the terrifying necessity of truth. This is one reason why it’s important to travel. As we experience unusual things over the course of our trip we break the barrier of familiarity, and our senses come alive in that child-like way so important to artistic awareness.

Courage – Permission to tell is the mantra of every writer. When we talk about “telling” in writing, we are talking about the unedited, unapologetic, painful truth about people and events in our stories. This honesty is the hardest concept to grasp, because it goes against the nature of everything we’ve been told about manners. We don’t often tell the truth in the day-to-day because it’s uncomfortable. People can be offended. The truth hurts. More than one writer has acknowledged the dichotomy between mannered living in the real world and the brutal conduct they impose in the writing world. There is no room for manners in writing. The job of the writer is to get the real story onto the page without reservation, and that takes courage.

In my quest for an authentic voice I realized that if I want to reach my goal I need to write in an environment where I feel like I’m getting away with something. After all it’s guilt that keeps me from telling in the first place, so it makes sense to me that if I am going to cross that line I need to do it in a place that doesn’t remind me a whole lot of my comfortable, happy life. Mr. Benjamin seems to agree. “You will not find the necessary courage there.” The personal and the creative are never entirely separate. There’s no way they can be. This is why it’s so terrifying to write truthfully. In public spaces, where strangers surround me, I can honestly reflect on my characters, and hone in on what is real about them and authentic about the story.

In the larger world I feel bold, and I am courageous and alive in ways that the sedation of home denies me.


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3 comments on “(You Have Been Granted) Permission to Tell

  1. Creativity requires courage…no doubt about that.

    I try to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone with every project. Sometimes it’s a particular p.o.v. character. Sure, it’d be easy to stick to white, middle-class male characters because that’s who I am. Easy and unsatisfying. “Writing what you know” is overrated. I recently wrote a novel that alternated among three narrators: a young, white female, a gay man of Asian descent, and a sadistic serial rapist.

    Was it challenging? Yes.

    Do I risk offending people? Yes, but that’s always true.

    If I didn’t represent these kinds of individuals, I might offend people because they didn’t get any attention. If I did represent them but (in some readers’ opinions) didn’t present them genuinely and/or reinforced stereotypes, I’m bound to get lambasted.

    But if a writer cares more for a single reader’s (or group’s) thoughts/opinions/feelings than the exercise of creating an honest, realistic character based on the writer’s true-life experiences, then that writer is destined to be paralyzed…or reduced to writing only sanitized autobiography!

    One final cliché for the day: you can’t please everyone, so you have to please yourself.

    • Hi David,

      Your comments bring to mind a conversation I had earlier this week with two different people regarding audience. I was marveling at the descriptive powers of David Foster Wallace and one person suggested that today’s audience doesn’t want to work hard enough to embrace that level of writing. She asked whether, in that case, the writer was writing for themselves or for an audience. I brought the question to a forum and one respondent said the people in his life concurred that people don’t want to work when they read. After thinking about it I decided that the writer is best served writing for themselves and to let that be the reward.

      I was a bit dismayed to think that our attention spans are so short these days that artful writing is dying out, but I don’t think the latter is true. We might have to evolve our styles for the way our brains work today, but that’s always been the case. Artful writing still has a place. The art comes out when the reader feels emotions and gains ideas. If the writing achieves that then it is art.

      • It’s a balancing act to be sure. People who write only for themselves risk having no audience (and no sales), which is fine if you’re a dabbler (i.e., someone who doesn’t intend to profit from his/her craft.

        But if you want to be an author who gets paid for his/her work, you walk a tightrope of integrity for your own vision while making subtle compromises to make it as accessible as possible for your target audience.

        Art and science, really.

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