Painful Honesty

Image of a stylized eye

The eye that looks inward allows good writing to flow outward.-Me! Image via Wikipedia

I had a story published in Prize Papers, an anthology my high school gave to students to show them models of good writing. They would refer to different types of essays found in the book when teaching, giving an illustration to students how to write well.

I never would have gotten this honor had it not been for Mrs. Jackson. I was in a memoir writing elective class called Self-Portraits. This was my first writing assignment for the class, and I wanted to make sure it was good, so I wrote it a week early and gave it to Mrs. Jackson to read when she had study hall duty in the dorms.

I’d never seen so much red ink in all my life. What is this? I thought. I’m a good writer. I don’t make many grammatical errors or spelling errors. What all did she find that resulted in this massacre? It looked like the beaches of Normandy had exploded onto my personal essay. Never being shy when it comes to my writing, I asked her.

She went over all of her notes with me, pointing out all of the things she didn’t like about my essay. Her main critiques kept coming back to the main issue–it was surface layer writing. I didn’t use sharp enough descriptions. I glossed over how it felt. I didn’t stimulate the reader’s five senses or prick their hearts. It was a good idea for a paper, but not if I didn’t write it well. She said something like If you don’t want to dig past the surface, don’t write it.

After I got over being angry (she obviously had no idea what she’d just read; everyone knows how great I am at writing), I thought long and hard about the story I was telling. It was a true one, as far as that went. I’d faithfully recorded all the pertinent details, but I had to admit to myself it was a little flat. It was like the cold rough surface of a piece of coal; you know there’s a diamond inside, but how do you get to it?

While that realization was painful, her words are not the painful honesty of the title. The essay was about me in elementary school. I had a crush on a boy, and through a series of unfortunate events, he was told I was telling people he liked me. Not only did he disabuse me of this notion, the encounter ended with me being hit with a mud-filled tire, walking home soaked and muddy. It had crushed all of my self confidence, affecting all of my subsequent relationships with family and friends, and I couldn’t get away with chronicling it as if I’m telling you what I had for breakfast.

So I started over. I had to return to that moment. I wrote and I choked on tears. I paced my floor. Why am I saying this? Why am I putting this out there on display? I wrote honestly, crossed it out, wrote it in again. I went back and forth like a seasaw.

When I turned it in, my teacher was amazed. She chose it to be the first thing we critiqued. That wasn’t what I had planned. Everyone couldn’t read it! But they did, and they thought it was amazing. I was relieved. Then she told me she was nominating it for Prize Papers.

Since it was the first semester and they choose Prize Papers at the end of the year, I forgot about it. I’d been nominated before and hadn’t won, so I didn’t put much stock in my ability to win. I was sitting in the principal’s office (someone had opened an orange in class and I’d gotten sick; yes, I’m allergic to oranges) when in strode the best English teacher on the faculty (so I’d been told; I’d never taken a class with him, except a quick AP English Exam prep session). He saw me and put his hand over his heart (no joke). “I just read your piece for Prize Papers,” he said (he was on the review board to choose the winners). Uh-oh. “It was so beautiful. I really related to it. It connected to…”

And that’s when it hit me. All of the choking and pacing and worrying, the struggle to be honest, the great care in choosing words to convey exactly how it was–all of that was so someone could read it and say “she’s writing about me! I’ve been there and done that.” When you write a piece that speaks to people and relays basic human truths, it’s going to hurt a bit. It forces you to look at yourself and make judgments. Whether it’s creative non-fiction or not, it has to be true and genuine and deeply felt.

I read a blog yesterday about finding the lie in your writing. The first essay didn’t work because I was lying, trying to make the whole thing seem like it was no big deal. I was attempting to distance myself from the incident, and ended up distancing myself from the essay.

How do you find the lie in your writing? How honest is too honest? Have you ever wrote until it hurt?


7 thoughts on “Painful Honesty

  1. Emotional honesty is hard as hell. And to write about yourself that way! I’m still having problems with getting to the heart of people’s feelings in my fiction. I know it’s because I’m such a private person, but telling myself that the characters aren’t me is something I have to do constantly. It’s worth it, though.

  2. It’s easier with characters. I can just say it isn’t me, hehe. But doing it in creative non-fiction felt like jumping out of a plane with a drink umbrella for a parachute. I felt like I had on a scarlett letter, or had a big, gaping wound I had to keep clean and let heal. But it was worth it in the end.

    I think most authors have a problem with remaining private people, because you put so much of yourself out there in your work. People will always speculate what’s real and what’s made up. It must be hard under that kind of lense.

  3. Loving this post! I remember books or passages of stories where I felt the emotion, the connection, the raw way the words made me feel like this was happening to me without using any visual props other than my imagination because the author’s words placed me there like your teacher was pulling you to do. That is the best writing!

    I am not a writer but I do understand this from a reader’s perspective. Honesty hurts from a writer, director, singer, or any creative artist’s standpoint when you must transmit that emotion (again) to the public to bring a story/movie/song/poem to life. Why tell the story hall-assed when you can tell it authentically? The good thing is that it is much appreciated.

  4. My characters (except one in my first NaNo novel) are so unlike me that it really shouldn’t be a problem. I think it’s the dredging up of emotions that bothers me most. For very young writers, who often model characters after themselves and people they know, maintaining the distance is probably harder.

  5. Pingback: Trust Issues « Copywrite1985

  6. @Denisha–it’s true that those emotions connect the writer and the reader more so than even something visual could. We have different experiwnces but the same set of emotions/ feelings and senses to process them and deal with them. Iths good to know iths appreciated and felt by other people.

    @Catana I think readers/ critics will assume it relates to you whether it does or doesn’t. At least that’s been my experience. It shouldn’t matter where it comes from as long as it’s authentic feeling. as long as someone can relate to it, though, right?

    • I suspect it’s harder for readers to separate authors from their characters these days, because the writing process, and authors, are more out in the open. And we have a culture that psychologizes everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if the more you deny a character is in any way related to you, the more readers will be convinced that it is.

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