Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2016

Is Your Writing Naked?

I have a dear writing friend (Jo Knowles) who asks herself after each revision, “Is it true yet?” More and more of late, my question after revising has become, “Am I naked yet?” By this I do not mean literal nakedness (writers can choose their own writing attire—I do not judge). Instead I mean, Am I risking enough? Am I telling enough of my own vulnerabilities and pain? Do I make sure that even the good guys do bad things, and that even the characters I identify with most embark on a journey that stretches them? Am I keenly aware that people who hate certain parts of the story will end up feeling like they hate me on a very personal level?

Learning to write well is learning to tell a story. Beginning writers often make the mistake of hitting the reader over the head with some kind of moral lesson (this is especially true in children’s literature). But if you think that you are writing for someone else’s improvement rather than to learn about truths in yourself, you are taking the easy way out. When you tell truths to other people instead of about yourself, you lose much of the power in writing.

This isn’t to say that I think writing should always be autobiographic. It shouldn’t. Nor do I think that writing should be overly sentimental or weepy. It can be horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical, mystery or any other genre. It shouldn’t be some kind of roman á clef that is a thinly veiled story of your own life. It doesn’t have to be confessional and you don’t need to feel like you are using writing as therapy for your own demons.

But writing should be revelatory. It should speak to more than one circumstance. It should feel to the reader that you are describing their life even if there are few similarities in the outward trappings of your experience and theirs. And this is true because good writing shows how we humans are all the same. We all love and then go through the process of loss. We all are betrayed by those we love. We all fail those we love and are wracked by guilt over it. We all learn to move on after grief passes us by. We all love good food and good conversation. We are all a little vain. We are all a little too gullible when it comes to what we want to believe. We all have a first, perfect memory we cling to. We all miss certain childhood moments. We’ve all seen a sunset and thought about death.

What good writing does is offer specificity that translates universally. This doesn’t mean that you have to share private details of an argument with a friend who never forgave you. But when you write a story about friendship, your memories and experiences should be in play. You should delve deep into your own soul and offer up the gems you find there—whether they glitter or not.

Part of writing well is expressing perfectly the way something feels. Using metaphor is one of the tools in your box, but so is beautiful language or even empty space on the page. Your job is to tell the truth of the devastation you’ve experienced without being self-centered about it. It isn’t about you. It’s about the words on the page and getting them right.

For me, revision is almost always about opening myself up more than I did the first time. I rework scenes to make sure that the characters go through just a little more pain. I take out a line here and there because I realize it isn’t necessary. I shift chapters around because I want the emotional climax to be more powerful. Sometimes I realize that I haven’t taken away enough from my poor, suffering characters. I’ve pulled punches and let my characters escape the pain that I myself feel. And so I have to write my own pain back into the story, not because it’s about me but because it’s about the naked truth.

Writing can be therapeutic, yes. More times than I care to remember, I have found myself telling a story that I had kept hidden inside because I didn’t understand it or because I didn’t want to let myself see how vulnerable I am. I didn’t want to see the truth, and the longer I work on a story, the more unpleasant truths about myself came out. Writing can be painful, and that is one reason why I think writer’s block happens. We give up on a story not because it isn’t good enough but because it’s too good, and we don’t want to go there. That’s too far, that’s too much, we don’t want to share that much with the world.

We write for many reasons. We write to earn a living. We write because we want to gain a kind of immortality. We write because we’re good at it. We write because we have a story to tell. But writing well means that we have to be willing to accept that we did it wrong, that we can do better, that we need to start over again. Writing well means going deeper, offering more of ourselves to the reader, sacrificing our own pain to become art. To quote Dr. Who on the topic of Vincent Van Gogh,

He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.

If we as writers learn to transform our pain into the beauty of art, we do it by offering up our own experiences—even if they are not particularly flattering. We share specifics of the way we lived through something that might have been ordinary, but which reverberated differently for us. We all live in imaginary worlds and our pain becomes exaggerated and unique in our own minds. That’s what we tell in art, not always about the color of the wall, but the color of the wall in our minds, which is not the same thing. We tell about what we saw and felt and heard in our heads, and that is a truth beyond the details that could be captured by a photograph or a video of the event itself.

That is the creative mind at work, and that is our gift to the world, in letting people see inside of us what was not ordinary and what may seem mad or foolish or over-the-top. This is why writers must be braver than other people. We are always the emperor in his new clothes, strutting about naked, pretending that we are normal while doing the strip-tease of telling our stories in the most painful possible way.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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