Honesty In Writing


To me, the two souls of writing are life and honesty. You must live, so that you have something to write about. Which does not mean that you must travel all around the world and fill your life with adventures and catastrophes, but that you must be aware of life, feel it, observe it, immerse yourself in the experience of being alive, not protect yourself with blindness and numbness from the agony and joy of it. And then, you must have the courage to be honest about what you have lived.

Writing is not the same as diplomacy or discretion. It ought not to be a vehicle for building a false image to hide behind, nor should it be the voice of one’s final state, the inner condition one aspires to reach after all the smoke of living has cleared. Writing should not count to ten when it is angry, or wait for the blood to stop flowing before it begins to fill a piece of paper. Writing should have no fear of calling out from the depths of a pit: it should never give up its strength by coming from where it is not - though to write of a place where one truly longs to be, but has not yet arrived, is another matter, even a way of getting there. Writing is like a sacred connection between you and what you have lived, and the God of Writing, and that connection should never be surrendered to self-consciousness or fear.

I remember in my own first days of learning from other writers, how much I was impressed by Dostoevsky, for his amazing courage and ability to expose so much of his torment and complexity in the thoughts and actions of his characters. In poetry, I was impressed by Rilke, by his extraordinary sensitivity and intimacy with the paper.

Of course, it is not easy to be so honest, unless one locks one’s writings away in a trunk, hiding them from the world. For most people in the world, including potential readers, are not honest to that extent. It is not that they are deliberately deceitful, only that few dare to overcome the terror of penetrating their self-image to know who they truly are. We live in a world afraid of itself, psychologically ignorant, perceiving things on a superficial level, avoiding its depths. Not knowing themselves, there are many who do not really know life, and when they, therefore, hear life expressed, with full honesty by a writer, they are likely to be shocked, outraged, and disturbed. Many writers, who fear offending others, hurting others, or emerging from the protection of the harmless or obedient image expected of them, are in this way stifled - pressured into censoring themselves. And their writing becomes a social act, rather than a divine one.

It is crucial for the developing writer to understand clearly that his writing belongs to him, and to the Muse who stands behind him. He need not be a "hired pen", writing to please others. Naturally, he will not want to hurt others, who might feel unfairly reflected in his work. For example, if a writer creates an awful father-figure in a novel, his father, if alive, might well feel wounded by it, certain that that figure was, in some way, meant to mirror him. (And everyone who knew the father might share in that view, believing that some dark secret had been exposed.) Although the writer should, on one level, be sensitive to this issue, he ought not to choke the life out of his writing by trying to cushion and protect everyone who might possibly be offended or embarrassed by it. Fiction writing is, to a large extent, built out of the stuff of reality. One uses real people, real places, real experiences as a sort of raw material in building one’s work, not necessarily modeling characters and events upon them, but extracting some truth, and some insight from what one has touched, seen, and lived in life. One may, rather like a genetic engineer, use some traits of one’s father, mixed with traits of other people one has known or heard of, or imagined, to create a composite character who serves one’s dramatic purpose - a chimera, made of different souls. To deny oneself the right to use any of this raw material, for fear of offending and hurting others, would be like a painter refusing to use red or yellow paint when he is mixing colors. It would represent nothing less than a mutilation of one’s artistic possibilities.

In the same way, the writer should not fear to use unresolved or unenlightened emotional states as the engine of his creation. For example - take the case of a poem. Say that a writer had a terrible argument with someone he loved. Before he has had a chance to fully process the argument, to realize that his lover had legitimate reasons for causing him pain in order to protect her own needs, and before he was able to reach a more balanced and fair perspective about it, he wrote a poem, from a condition of desperation, feeling wronged, betrayed, even murdered. What emerged was a powerful work of art, filled with passion and intensity, exuding the reality of that moment from his perspective - a piece of life as it was lived. Should the writer suppress his creation, once he has reached a higher vision of what he went through - or preserve and expose it, as a testament to the pain of life, the power of shattered illusions, the despair of loneliness? Each writer - each human being - would, of course, have to make his own call. But it is my belief that art, to be great, must be free, and that to be free, it must dare to be true to what has been lived, whether that is wise or foolish, just or passionately mistaken.

Naturally, this does not imply that the writer should avoid growth as a human being, or ever shy away from enlightenment - only that he should be true to his own experiences, and not reject them as valid sources of his creation, not "cut them out of the photograph" of his life like banished members of a totalitarian government after a purge, even if he has moved to a new place in his heart, or wants to. In fact, it is my belief that by honestly writing about what one has felt or is feeling, no matter how low, unenlightened or incomplete it may be, one may come to better understand oneself and what one is going through, the first fundamental step in achieving healing and wisdom.

Once again, the writer needs to establish an attitude which is comfortable for him, relative to any given situation. On the one hand, he cannot allow his creativity to be crushed by others, and what they may think of his creation. In the same way that it would not be easy to make love to one’s girlfriend with one’s parents standing right there, beside the bed, watching, so it is not easy to write with the whole world in one’s head, looking over one’s shoulder, judging every word one writes. It is not easy to create, imagining all the people who may take offense or be hurt by your life force, as you finally stop pretending to be who they want you to be or think you are, and let your real thoughts out. To restrict yourself in that way would be to turn writing into an obstacle course of subjects, characters, and emotions to be avoided, and rob it of all its spontaneity and power.

On the other hand, neither does one want to be some kind of ruthless, callous predator, swooping down on other people and their lives, stealing bits and pieces of them, and using them with no regard for their humanity. One does not want to reduce other people into being mere instruments of one’s creation, obliterate them to turn them into one’s artistic raw material.

Sad to say, there are few universal formulas or doctrines that work in this world, to spare us the pain of making choices, and each artist must face this issue in his own way.

In my mind, however, I would once again remind the developing writer that there is no great writing without honesty, though competent and even interesting writing - even fascinating writing - and certainly "successful" writing - may take place without it. I encourage the writer who is in doubt, to write whatever he feels, doing so with the secrecy of a diary-writer if that helps to open the doors of uninhibited self-expression. Create without restraints, I say, and face the dilemma of what to do with what you have created after it has been born.


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