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.
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.
We 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?
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 Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.