This post is part of a series examining the core habits and tools of the writing life. Join the conversation in the comments section or on Twitter.
Writing, to paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, is about telling the truth.
I wish I could remember where I first read that. I think it was in a literature anthology I bought at a thrift store. Fortunately for me, I was young and impressionable when I read it, and it has stuck with me ever since.
Write what is true.
If you want to become a better writer, here’s my advice: Make it your goal to write one true thing every day. Length doesn’t matter. It can be a chapter, a paragraph, or a single sentence long. It just has to be true. That’s what readers want: Truth. Not just in the objective, factual sense, but also in the subjective, human sense.
As easy as that sounds, it’s actually pretty hard. When you’re writing, even for yourself, you will be tempted to ditch the truth in favor of a pleasant pretense. What I mean to say is, you’ll want to try to sound like someone else. And this someone, you’ll be certain, is more witty, intelligent, and successful than you are. This persona will, you’ll reason, be a better conduit for truth than plain old you.
Don’t buy that bill of goods. Abandon the fantasy that you can be a successful writer while pretending to be someone you aren’t. Only you can speak your own truth. And, although your truth is shot through with biases and heartbreak — everyone’s is, really — that doesn’t make it any less true.
Here’s how the choreographer Martha Graham put it:
“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it … it will be lost. … It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. … It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
Some days, you’ll try to write something true, and you’ll fail. The words on the page won’t sound like you at all. Or, you will show up as yourself, but your writing will be clumsy and cluttered with phrases that just don’t fit. The writing is you, alright, but you still in your proverbial curlers and jam-jams.
It’s OK. If you make a good effort, you still get to count it as a win. Show up tomorrow and try again.
Here are some writers who speak truth in their writing. Know of any others? Give them a shout out in the comments section.
- Must Be This Tall to Ride. Matthew Fray writes brutally honest and insightful reflections on divorce, marriage, and relationships.
- The Bloggess: You’ve probably heard of Jenny Lawson’s darkly hilarious blog, but if you haven’t read it, you should.
- The Beautiful Due: John Blase’s poetry, letters, and poignant observations on life are a daily dose of grace and gentle wit.
What’s your truth? How do you communicate it, in writing or otherwise?
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