November 28, 2005

Notes: Writing True, by Timber Shelton

Writing True
by Timber Shelton

Write true. Write what you know. Open the vein and let it pour out, says Faulkner.

I have always believed these widely known, often repeated pearls of writing wisdom to mean a good writer should somehow write about their own life, delving into their most painful memories, using glimpses of the things they have actually seen or done, even in fiction. That is, until today.

While I have been told by many that I should write a book about my life, my childhood in particular, that is something I am just not ready to do. At least not yet.

I have shied away from writing anything too personal, particularly the hardest experiences of my life – the experiences that played a major role in shaping who I am, often the experiences I try very hard not to think about. Instead, I choose to write about other people’s experiences or realities – whether real or fictional – choosing situations that are as different from my own as possible, or if my own, at least my funnier experiences. Even in my journals I tend to focus on the present, or at least the pleasant.

I distance myself from my writing, and I often feel a little guilty for it, like I am not giving it my all because I avoid the pain. After all, aren’t real writer’s supposed to be angst filled and willing to pour out their tortured souls on paper? Willing to bleed ink?

Over the day’s first cup of coffee I was reading “Escaping into the Open – The Art of Writing True” by Elizabeth Berg. I usually do a little reading before I start writing in the morning to help get into a literary frame of mind. During the first chapter she gives a short biography describing how she came to make writing her career, (which sounded very familiar). I was pondering the book’s subtitle, wondering, as I often have lately, if I would ever be able to “write true” without actually sharing my own experiences. Suddenly I was blessed with one of those lovely little epiphanies that all writer‘s occasionally enjoy – that lightening bolt of pure, clear understanding that instantly illuminates a path you didn’t know existed. It didn’t exactly come from what I was reading, though it may get into this further along in the book, (I am quite anxious to find out and will finish reading it as soon as I finish writing this).

I suddenly understood that “writing true” doesn’t mean you have to write about your actual biographical occurrences, the setting and situation is just the wrapping paper. To “write true” means to write about the core of any situation – the anger, envy, joy, grief, shame, loneliness, abandonment, longing, denial, rapture, fear and, of course, love – and the impression it makes on your spirit. Emotional landscapes that most of us have visited and sometimes lived in. Finding the grain of truth in any circumstance your characters are given and how the emotions brought on by those circumstances shape their hearts. It is not the specific experiences that readers usually relate to. Instead, it is the truest, deepest and most profound sentiments that lie behind those experiences – whether it be the humiliation that we wish to keep hidden, or the passion we want to shout from every roof top.

Maybe this is something I would have learned years ago had I experienced a formal writing education, but somehow I don’t believe so. This is a realization I was meant to have today. An understanding that will change my writing from this day forward.

I don’t have to put down on paper the experiences of my life, but I do have to remember those emotions. That is something I am willing to do.


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