Some days, writing is hard. Other days, words flow like a river of magic.
It’s taken some time, but I’ve noticed that when I’m in the zone, when words come easily, it’s because I’m writing honestly. There’s nothing to force, because the story that wants to be told is outing itself.
Writing honestly means allowing the story to tell its truth. Some days that’s easier than others! Often as writers, we look for ways to be faithful—to reality, to life, to logic, to our long-held and cherished beliefs—but when it really comes down to it, writing a good story is not quite as simple as that.
Writing a good story requires loyalty and precision, yes, but it does not require factual accuracy.
Is it a writer’s job to tell the truth?
One of the most common questions I get as an editor and writing instructor, from my nonfiction writers is, when I ask them to push deeper into a scene and really uncover what they’re trying to say, is, But don’t I have to tell the truth?
Equally common from my fiction writing bunch, when I flag something as not quite resonant in a story, is, But that really happened!
They’re two sides of the same coin, and they point to some obvious differences in genre, but more interestingly, they point to what links writers of any genre, and the power, function, and importance of storytelling.
Honesty ≠ Truth, Truth ≠ Facts
First, let’s clarify a few things.
When I say, “writing honestly,” I am not talking about telling the truth. And when I say “truth,” I’m not talking about facts.
Facts are the domain of biographers, historians, and scientist. All noble professions that use facts to tell a story. When done well, these stories approach a sort of truth, something that exposes the human condition or grapples with the unknowable nature of the universe. This is by no means a requirement for this kind of writing.
It is, however, a requirement for creative writers.
In writing, as in life, truth is subjective. It depends on weather, emotion, mood, relationship, where you’re seated in a room, whether or not you’re hungry, etc.
It is true that the grass at my feet is green as I write this, and that the sky overhead is blue, but 4 months ago, that wasn’t true at all, just as in 8 months it will no longer be true.
It is also true that I gave birth to my first child last year, but depending on my mood (which is in turn dependent on hormones, fatigue, blood sugar level, etc.), how I tell the story of his birth changes.
Writing Honestly vs. Telling the Truth
It is one thing to understand the truth. It is quite another to write about anything honestly.
Because writing honestly requires a certain distillation and manipulation of the truth. How do you or your narrator or protagonist witness the story you’re trying to tell? And how will you show your reader a faithful replica of what you see?
Finding Ways to Write Honestly
Here are a few of the tricks I use when I can’t quite find a story’s true north:
- Deep Imagining: This is a term I picked up from Claire Davis in grad school. Deep imagining involves really inhabiting your story, from the roots up. It involves knowing much more about your characters than what they present on the page. It involves knowing the composition of dirt beneath a character’s feet. It involves getting deep into all sorts of fun, messy stuff, and then resisting the urge to put every single detail on the page, and instead set the truth of the matter down.
- Take a breath, & tune into your gut: This is much simpler sounding than it actually is. Most of us don’t want to sit still with the truth. We don’t want listen to our gut. It’s (part of) why we love technology: it’s a distraction. It’s (part of) why so many Americans have digestive issues: we don’t want to hear the wisdom out guts hold. But sitting still, breathing in (and out), holding space for what you might not want to understand—this action, when done regularly, can open up the door to a newfound honesty, and if we’re lucky, clues on how to best tell the stories that haunt us.
- Look at the story askew: You know how at night, you can see better from your peripheral vision? Writing honestly is like that. If you try to approach the truth dead-on, you’ll likely not see it clearly. Find ways to get sneaky with it, stalking around its edges, until you can truly see it. Ironic, right? But give it a try—the truth is a shy beast, and it wears many faces, and it’s up to you to figure out how to see it.
In the end, only the story matters…
As a writer, your primary duty is to the story. Not to yourself, nor the people populating the page. Not to facts or truth or what really happened.
Is your story approaching its truth? Are you writing honestly?
You’ll know when it’s happening, because even if it’s a struggle, the end product feels transcendent.
Writing honestly allows the story to tell itself, without agenda, without artifice.
These are the stories that resonate with us, long after we read them.