Writing Honestly Means Digging Deep
Rita Robison

My first writing instructor at a local community college, who possessed writing magic and teaching in her veins, walked slowly up and down the rows of students sitting silently at individual desks, stopping briefly to look them in the eye. Finally she said, “Every one of you holds a multitude of secrets, or you wouldn’t be sitting in this classroom.”

I frowned that wait-a-minute look, knowing that nearly everyone holds secrets, family or otherwise. As I continued to grow as a writer, however, it became evident that she was right. For writers, those secrets she spoke of eventually bubble up from deep within and reveal themselves as writer’s honesty.

Say What  Must be Said Even if it Hurts

One time she marked up one of my stories, and added some notes saying, “What do you really mean by this statement? And “What are you trying to say?” I marched up during break and gave her some examples of exactly what those marked portions meant. She smiled and said, “Then that’s what you should have written in the first place, just what you’re telling me now.” I can still see her sometimes elusive blue eyes sparkling.

Writing that impacts readers doesn’t skim the surface. It usually involves “writer’s honesty,” something that connects readers to what the writer has said. “Aha, I know what this person is talking about,” “I didn’t know anyone else thought that way,” or “My experience was different, but I know where that writer is coming from.”

Effective writing bestirs readers. It not only makes them pause and ponder, but it can generate emotions ranging from awe to dread and guilt to acceptance. Such writing moves readers toward our human commonalities.

Get Rid of the Censor

Writer’s honesty does not mean simply not lying; or honesty that is hurtful to others; or baggage-laden “let-it-all-hang-out honesty” that makes us sound like jerks, and that makes the listener cringe. It involves writing without the censor sitting on our shoulder. We tend to hold back, even with fiction. “Oh, no, that’s too weird,” or “too blatant,” or “No one will believe me.” “People won’t like me if I say that.” “I won’t like myself if I say that.” Yet, readers always gravitate toward writers who know how to use the step beyond simple truth: honesty.

I was reminded of this in a line from Colum McCann’s award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin, when Gloria reminisces about her past and says of the letters she had written home to her parents, “I gave them the truth, but none of the honesty.”

She gave them the truth about her work, where she lived, the people she met, and that she might be dating, but not how her work impacted her life; not how some people hurt her desperately; not how she dealt with loneliness; not how she wanted more or less of something; not how frightened she was that years passed so rapidly. We tell the truth and don’t go beyond the top layer.

Writer’s honesty deals with leaving nothing unanswered. It means digging past the truth in our own lives or in the characters we create. If we skim, we end up with stick figures of our characters or of ourselves.

Everything we write, every word we use, even the subject matter we choose to write about, fiction or nonfiction, reveals our background and where we’re coming from, including belief systems that are not necessarily religious, secrets, and perspectives on how we view the world.

Writers who write with meaning cannot tiptoe through the tulips. Life is tough for most people, even those who keep a stiff upper lip when things go wrong. That doesn’t mean we can’t write fun stuff, material that falls in the how-to category, personal essays, fantasy, romance or anything else.  Still, we need to go deep within. That’s where people — writers and readers — live most of their lives.

John Updike said in a 1977 New York Times Book Review that he’s willing to show good taste in someone else’s living room, but that life is too short for writers to bring that same politeness to their writing.

Instead, we writers, and I’m as guilty as any, often turn to words and phrases that don’t convey what we’re initially thinking while sitting in front of the computer, or that we jotted down on slips of paper on the nightstand, or notes scribbled on a napkin at a restaurant. The fear of revealing what sits below the surface traps us. We’ve been taught to be “nice,” a word that insults writers, especially if someone says “It’s a nice book.” We want people to like us. So we tap-dance around the words we desperately need to say. Or we say nothing, and leave out the too-difficult-to write honest words.

The tap-dancing reminds me of Richard Greer in the movie musical, “Chicago.” He’s trying to defend his client and gets trapped with his own deceit, but comes out tap-dancing in front of the judge in order to cover his tracks and distract all present.

Cheryl Strayed’s, Wild, a bestseller about the forces driving her to hike alone on the Pacific Crest Trail with no experience in order to find herself, offers another look at an author who dug deep below the surface for writer’s honesty. Because of that, the book is being made into a movie, and is expected to increase traffic on the PCT.

Writer’s honesty deals with digging past what we think and feel, to what triggered the thought, feelings, and emotions in the first place. It opens up writers to being vulnerable, disarmed, and at the mercy of readers. Scary thoughts. Still, it’s the only road that takes us to authentic writing, and to readers who trust what we have to say.