Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 22, 2018

Becoming a “Real” Writer

Kathryn Craft

I love to go hear other authors speak. What a kick that Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout sounds like my favorite quirky aunt, or that bestselling author Margot Livesey’s lush prose begins with characters who, like mine, nod and shrug their way through her first drafts.

I’ve walked away from dozens of such interactions thinking, “She was just so real.”

Now, isn’t that a funny thing to say about someone who makes things up for a living?

Or perhaps writing engaging fiction is one of the most emotionally truthful pursuits in which we will ever engage. A novelist can spend years crafting a story that will illustrate an emotional truth. Why? Because the point she is making is vital to her worldview. That’s pretty darned personal—it’s laid bare.

Fear of such exposure is why reaching for emotional honesty can be a significant source of writer’s block. Accomplished writers grow in authenticity the same way we all must: one step at a time.

Pair of feet going up stairs

Speaking your truth

Because my family of origin did not create a safe place for being real, my first stabs at raw emotional honestly didn’t occur until I was 34, on the pages of my journal. Even that writing felt dangerous, at first. But in time, the explorations on those pages stoked the fire of who I am and what I believe.

Once I was honest with myself there, the next step felt more doable: I spoke my truth aloud. To only one person, true, but considering I was married to him, an important one. And when over time he continued to express no interest in my little personal growth project, I grew even bolder and told him our marriage was over. The courage I’d gained from speaking my truth was a crucial foundation when, a month later, I had to find a way past his suicide.

A year and a half later, my first public statement of what I believe changed my life.

I was meeting with a small support group of people whose marriages had recently ended. The discussion leader said, “If you were to start a new relationship, what is the most important lesson from the first that you would carry forward?”

The first guy set the tone. He complained that after his wife had gone back for a master’s degree, he wasn’t good enough anymore. Next time, he’d want someone who didn’t want to change, since “I’m the same man I was in the 1960s.” Which was clear enough, since he was wearing a leisure suit.

Group of people in a circle talkingWe continued around the circle, with closely guarded participants deflecting with one ridiculous answer after another. Seriously, I could write a sit-com.

But as my turn to answer grew closer, I recognized an opportunity to speak my truth. And I thought, why not? If I couldn’t do this in a room of strangers, when would I ever? Plus, that first fellow had me incensed. I will enthusiastically defend anyone’s right to self-actualize. I felt a moral imperative to be real.

I sat on my hands, to stop the shaking, and began.

“It seems that by the time you’re my age, you’ve given some thought as to the meaning of your life. That will lead you to think about your relationship to a larger creative force—God, the Universe, a Higher Power—and how you are being called to use your life to offer something to the world. Figuring this out should be our first priority. The second priority should be our relationship to self, through nurturing all other aspects of health.”

My heart was beating so loudly I wondered if anyone could hear my words. But what the hell, I’d gotten this far.

“My first husband put me on a pedestal. I never want to be anyone’s number one again. In my next relationship, I want my partner to think of his relationship to God first, and himself second. I never want to be more than a solid third.”

There was some eye-rolling, I’ll admit. But I had spoken my truth and lived! I could take it.

That was reward enough. But, unknown to me, my words had shifted fate. A couple weeks later, the discussion leader, who’d been with the group four years, called to say he thought I was someone he could talk to. After several months of lunches and casual dates, he felt it was time to share a piece of paper with me—his personal mission statement, written after taking a Stephen Covey class years earlier at work.

I don’t think I breathed while I was reading. The words were almost the same as those I had shared in that support group. I looked up, the yellowing onion skin paper shaking in my hand, knowing we had truly seen each other.

We’ve now been married for 17 years.

There is such power in speaking your truth. It released me from an ineffective marriage, drew to me my second husband, and unlocked the stories that are my chosen way of sharing that truth. The emotional resonance in my work is why I got published and what brings my readers back for more. Now, after I speak in public venues, people say online, “She’s just so real.”

Speak your truth on the pages of your journal. Speak it out loud to a friend. Infuse your stories with it. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. Your bold acts will be rewarded.

This is our emotional preparation for becoming “real.” Your readers will thank you.

Has journaling helped you as a writer? How? What do you believe? If you want to practice stating it in a safe place, share it in the comments.

Have you written a story about that? If not, what’s stopping you?

About Kathryn

Kathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

40 comments on “Becoming a “Real” Writer”

  1. Oh Kathryn, thank you for sharing your story with us. Some things are just meant to be, like you meeting your second husband. You're so right, about sharing our truth....the beginning for me, was going back and talking to my childhood sexual abuser. I didn't want anything from him. And apology would have been meaningless. I just had to say out loud the secret that was buried inside me all those years.

    Saying it was a beginning for me. I've been 'opening' ever since. Amazing what power the spoken, and written word can have on a life. And by sharing, we can encourage others to say the words that need to be said.

    1. Laura I knew you'd connect to this post, which you could have (and may have previously) written. I cannot imagine what it took to stand before your abuser. I think I'd need leg braces to keep my knocking knees from giving out. What an emotional moment. So powerful for you to live, so powerful for us to read. And what I gift your opening has been to your friends, family, and readers. xoxo

    1. Thanks Ed. Not sure if I understand your comment about partnership, though. Can you clarify? Do you think of writing/speaking your truth as partnership with God, or did you mean something else?

  2. What a beautiful, empowering story, Kathryn! Thank you for being such a fearless, 'real' writer and person.

  3. Thank you, Kathryn, for sharing this deeply touching story. It shouldn't take women (or men) such courage to speak aloud what we really want from life, and from a life partner, but it seems to take the courage of a lioness in many cases. I admire you for having that courage.

    1. Oh, if you only knew me when, Rhonda! I was a biology major, which in retrospect, made so much sense. I could hide behind that which can be known, and proven. I couched all opinions with the word "apparently," which I didn't realize until my brother pointed it out. I just didn't understand the concept of worldview at all, or that it was okay that I had one. I would have been a pretty lame novelist back then!

  4. Thanks for this great post. I became real when I wrote my memoir, Off Kilter. Not everybody liked what I had to say, but it was my personal truth, and I haven't had a single moment of regret, just sadness at being misunderstood. What do I believe? That we don't have to suffer, and we create our own happiness.

    1. Yes, Linda! I love that you haven't regretted your decision. So many potential memoirists fear this, right? It's like they're stuck sitting in a boat, wanting to move, yet fear casting off the security of the ropes that tether them to the dock. And yet it is so empowering to pull away, finally moving under your own power, that once in motion you wouldn't give it up for anything. Each time we survive doing that thing we fear, we grow ever stronger. Today the boating, tomorrow the skydiving! (haha—metaphor)

      Staying stuck is one way to create our own suffering, which is a corollary to what you believe. Thanks for sharing your truth with us today!

  5. Kathryn, I love this on so many levels, and I am so glad to have read your truth and I feel privileged to have been able to *know* that you are as real as it gets. I love spending time with you and reading your columns here and on WU. I loved The Far End of Happy as well and I recognize the courage it took to write that book.

    Earlier this month when we were making an 11-hour car ride back from visiting friends in TN, I used part of that time to read aloud to my husband from my latest manuscript that I wanted him to read. There's so much *real" in that MS--enough that I had to make sure my son was engaged with a movie with headphones on when I came to several parts. There were parts that were awkward to read out loud. And I don't know how Zach will feel about the whole thing once he's done with it. It's the most emotionally real thing I've written. And there's fear in that, of course. But I had to write it. It insisted on being written.

    Thanks for your example and your words of encouragement.

    1. Hugs, Erin, and thank you for all of your kind words. But...OMG WHERE'S THE BUY BUTTON??? I swear, this is how to market. Those emotional places you fear going most is exactly where many of us are sitting, waiting for a great read to rescue us. You go, girl! Will be tracking the progress of this manuscript!

  6. Thanks for sharing truth with us, Kathryn. I began to journal at 30. Prayers and thoughts began to come in rhyme--later free verse, then short stories. Now 45 years and ten books later I praise God the day I picked up a pen and wrote what I heard.

    1. Wow Sally, ten books! Talk about casting open the gates. Good for you! I love how your story illustrates that we don't get to control the form the truth rides in on. You grew into yourself!

  7. Kathryn, wow. Thank you! What a provocative way to start my Monday morning. My truth came at several points later in life.

    When I became parentless a few years ago, it was the shocking revelation that my siblings and I are now the top branches of our living family tree. Though I'm certain my mom and dad are with me at all times, their physical absence will be--I fear--always an "unhealable wound."

    Around the same time, my corporate marketing career came to a screeching halt. After 30+ years of writing "stuff" and especially a never-ending stream of CEO speeches, it was time to write what was in my heart and head. I'm about to release my third novel. Each of those stories...and the others that are percolating on the back burners...are not-so-veiled disclosures of my life experiences.

    Now, after all those years of misusing words for purposes of propoganda, the precious words I choose--to combine in ways that only I can--tell emotional stories of hope and inclusion and love. That's my truth.

  8. Oh Christopher, it's only been a few years since my siblings and I also became the leading edge of the family. It is really weird. We must behave because there's no one to save us from ourselves! But we have a summer home where the extended family always gathered, and the voices and stories live on to remind us that we'd better come through the door quick or the bats will get in. 😉

    As for your story, I couldn't love it more! Clearly, you are moving in the right direction. Which is a good thing, because we just don't know how long we really have, right? #choosethisday #speakyourtruth

  9. I used to be so concerned about what people would think of me if I confessed issues I had dealt with or was dealing with, but then I discovered that everyone has challenges in life and the people who speak up are often the ones we most like. As you said, they come across as "real." And authenticity is compelling, both in fiction and in real life.

    Thankfully, as writers, we get to marry the two in our stories. Thanks so much for this poignant post, Kathryn!

    1. Love this: "Authenticity is compelling, both in fiction and in real life." But you're so right that without exposing the ways we mask our fears, we wouldn't have stories to tell.

  10. Wow, just read your post--what a wake-up call and confirmation for some of the stuff I've been pondering, in particular speaking and writing. Been *resisting* responding to the deep-inside-nudges to get moving due to a string of health issues over the past year that have shaken me to the core. Fear. It can scream (or whisper oh-so-darkly) loud enough to halt me in my tracks. But your words today...*there is so much power in speaking your truth*...are an inspiration, an encouragement to persevere and stay the course. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    1. You go, Micky! The universe gave you the obstacles that would till your soil and the wisdom to plant fruit in it. Don't let that go to waste. Report back. 😉

  11. Decades ago, as a young psychologist, I thought I had life figured out. It took a bizarre divorce, therapy, fourteen years as a single parent, and discovering several skeletons in the family closet to realize that truly, we are all damaged. My quest as a writer is to explore our damaged selves, help my characters (and myself) find healing, and learn to love ourselves and each other, including our weaknesses and scars. Kathryn, not only do I love your posts, I love the discussion they always engender. Thank you once again.

  12. I've always believed that sharing our truth takes courage -- and vulnerability (something Brene Brown speaks to) -- and when we take a deep breath and do that, we touch the hearts of others. You've done that in your books, Kathryn, and in your honest words when sharing in the support group. How beautiful that your openness led you to your husband. I hope I share truth from the heart in my blog posts ... and in my work in progress, women's fiction. Thank you for sharing here.

    1. Thanks for stopping in, Marielena! I know you're going through a tough time with caregiving responsibilities and am so glad you are writing through it. This time will offer up gifts, and you will grow ever stronger as you take on the mantle of the daughter you need to be. This can't help but shine through your work.

  13. When I was 32 years old, a huge family incident happened and a therapist - Jane Dill, God bless her - said, "You need to testify. You will never heal these wounds in yourself and your family until you do." And so I did. It was scary. So scary, I thought I'd break from it. But I didn't, and that was the beginning of the real me.

    However it's worded, speaking your truth holds more power than the battered soul can ever fathom.

    1. Okay, you have all of us avid readers dying for more detail. But of course the most important one is your growth from the ordeal. Thank god for our families, who often inspire both our desire to write and the material from which we draw our stories.

  14. Loved this story--it left me breathless! I find that the hardest part of putting out the truth is keying in the words. Because you can't type while you're sitting on your shaking hands.

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