If you want to make your writing shine, tell the truth. Tell the truth about what it means to be a human being
My favourite piece of writing advice, ever. So simple, yet absolutely nails the essence of good writing.
I’m a natural born people-pleaser so have a tendency to sugar-coat to preserve the feelings of others. Sometimes the truth is too painful, too exposing or too uncomfortable. It can evoke feelings of vulnerability or weakness (I get no pleasure admitting I’m a people-pleaser, believe me). Sometimes the truth might hurt someone else.
But here’s the thing.
It’s exactly that pain, that discomfort, that disruption in our emotions when we read the truth that makes it so compelling. It compels us because it reminds us that we’re human.
Let’s assume that most of us are ok most of the time. We behave in a civilised manner, we’re tolerant and kind, communicative and honest and caring and charitable towards others. That’s us, say 80-90% of the time, decent citizens, plodding along, being good, being lovely. That’s probably fair and it might be true, but it’s not particularly interesting.
At the opposite end of the scale, there’s psychotic, criminal, unthinkable behaviour. Horrific for society, but massively entertaining (see crime/psych thriller genre).
But what about the stuff in between? The truth of ordinary people? The subtle, seemingly unlikable parts or ourselves that we’d rather keep under wraps. The stuff that, if exposed, might damage others’ perceptions of us? What are we hiding? What are you hiding? What does that 10-20% look like?
Two books spring to mind: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran and I Laughed, I Cried by Viv Groskop. Both are almost painful in their honesty, yet to my mind, this makes the authors more, not less, likeable. Same goes for anything by Nora Ephron.
We all have flaws, secrets, we all hide parts of ourselves, from each other and often even from ourselves. An obvious example is lying. Lying is a great truth. We all lie. We lie about wanting to see people we don’t like and lie to get out of it, we tell someone we love their work when we hate it or that they look great when they look like a marshmallow wearing a belt, we lie to get out of doing things and we lie to get the things we want. We lie through our teeth.
I’m not talking about psychology or motives here. This is about base characteristics, raw emotions that (usually) cause shame, that can lay dormant or rise to the surface, depending on what’s going on in our lives. Suddenly feeling irrational hatred for someone you like because they’ve achieved something you wished you had (become thin/made stacks of cash/slept with Tom Hardy) does not make you a bad person, it makes you a human being.
Would anyone willingly admit to any of these examples?:
- Avoiding the Big Issue seller, not because you haven’t got change but because at that moment, you can’t be bothered to engage in conversation.
- Pretending not to see someone you know for the same reason.
- Despising parenthood and regretting it while telling someone how happy you are.
- Smiling your way through a party but wanting nothing more than to run away or be left alone.
- Being passive aggressive when you’ve actually wanted to be plain aggressive.
- Revealing something confidential to impress someone.
- Telling someone you love them knowing you don’t.
- Agreeing with someone to keep the peace.
- Putting yourself down to make someone else feel better.
- Wanting to tell someone to fuck off and meaning it and wishing they would.
- Hiding your dreams for fear they’ll be laughed at.
- Curling up on the floor and crying like a baby after not getting something you really, really wanted (*cough)
- Fearing being found out.
It’s ok. Because this is all of us. Without exception. If none of these examples resonate, please comment below and let us hear how perfect you are (see: passive aggressive above). All of these things and more live inside us. Some of them may never see the light of day, some surface once in a blue moon or maybe even just once, ever. And some we need to keep in check always. But they’re there and to deny them is to close off perhaps your biggest writing resource available.
It doesn’t matter what you’re writing – a book, a play, a blog, an email, a report or even a tweet – the truth will resonate and will give it weight and integrity. You don’t have to look far to find it, you only have to look inwards.
I’ll leave you with a link to a fantastic TED talk that was recommended to me recently by my friend, business coach Rhett Griffiths. It’s Brené Brown, a vulnerability researcher (I know, right?!), talking about The Power of Vulnerability:
Good luck and thanks for reading. If you’d like to add anything or get in touch, please comment below or get in touch via email. Let’s get the conversation going.
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