We begin today with this famous quote from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” We start here because I often read technically proficient pieces that don’t resonate because the writers haven’t left any parts of their hearts in them, and I want to think about how I can help us all be more willing to risk feeling something in our writing.
We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Which is to say, we can’t veer away from the truth. No matter our genre, we should be writing to unearth as many layers of truth as possible. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” True sentences come in the form of accurate observations, getting the facts right and depicting the details others might miss, but they also come in the form of honest admission—an opening of the heart, if you will. In creative nonfiction, we directly address our quirks, foibles, and flaws. In fiction, we do the same only through the guise of invented characters and plots. Sometimes we’re afraid of what others will think of us if we admit our shortcomings. The wonderful CNF writer, Silas Hansen, in a recent Brevity craft essay, writes about the importance of writing ourselves the way we really are. He recalls an undergraduate professor once telling him to stop trying to come across as a good person in his writing. “Stop trying to make me like you,” the professor said. “I’m not the admissions office. I’m not your grandmother.” Trying too hard to impress our readers with our goodness, our nobility, etc. leads us to write sentences that don’t vibrate with the truth. We have to be honest when we look at ourselves. As Silas says later in his craft essay, “Sometimes the part of me that needs to speak in an essay are the parts I don’t like very much, or the parts I’m afraid to let people see.” Exactly. We feel more as writers when we reveal more.
So, how do we do that? It’s not a bad idea to take an inventory of our less than better moments: our regrets, our sins, our grievances, our guilt. We should also inventory our quirks and flaws. All of these things make us human. A little rough around the edges just the way we all are. When we do these inventories, we start to feel deeply. We remember anger, pain, grief, and, yes even joy. We look at our idiosyncrasies. We regret again what we did or said, or maybe didn’t do or didn’t say. We practice empathy for ourselves and others.
When I was a freshman in high school, a girl who sat behind me in World History put a note on my desk. I felt it touch my elbow. This girl wasn’t a popular girl. In fact, she was quite odd. At the time, I couldn’t imagine the courage it must have taken for her to write that note. I had the ignorance of the young, concerned only with myself. I was a new student in this school, eager to fit in. I couldn’t risk accepting that note. I wasn’t brave enough, so I used my elbow to knock the note to the floor. I heard the girl shifting her weight in her desk, and I knew she was leaning over to retrieve what I’d lacked the courage to accept. As the class went on and the bell finally rang and I was able to gather up my books and escape, I tried to forget what had happened. I never could. It stays with me to this day. Even now, I feel a welling up of emotion when I think of how self-centered and unkind I was. I imagine the girl working up the courage to write whatever she wanted to say to me and how humiliated she must have been when I rejected her. I don’t know where she is now or whether she remembers this incident. If I did know, I’d tell her how sorry I am. I’d ask her to forgive me.
I used that incident in the title story of my first collection, “The Least You Need to Know.” No one who read it knew it was true, but I did. I wrote from my feelings of shame, regret, and, yes, admiration for this girl who was braver than I.