"If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people." –Virginia Woolf
In his book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, expressive therapy pioneer Dr. James Pennebaker devotes several chapters to the history and power of personal honesty. Per his extensive studies, all humans have inappropriate thoughts, fears, and uncomfortable memories. The best way to move past them is to travel through them.
In other words, you must confess.
Perhaps like me, you find this vastly comforting.
Building off social psychologist Dr. Dan Wegner’s findings that the harder we try to suppress a thought, the more power it gains (the “try not to think of a white bear” hypothesis), Pennebaker designed studies that found that when you stop suppressing and reveal your negative thoughts and memories, even if only on paper, you create a narrative congruence that allows your brains to release them.
Although Pennebaker’s studies cannot pinpoint whether the relief comes from the act of releasing a secret or the cessation of the work of inhibiting it, the science is clear: disclosing your closet skeletons is good for your immune system, your mental health, your blood pressure, your heart rate, and a bunch of other parts of you.
Going deep makes us healthy, and healthy people go deep.
Why Good Writers Are Self-aware
If deep self-awareness is crucial to mental and physical health, it’s also the key to the candy store when it comes to crafting powerful fiction. According to author Joanne Harris' Writer's Manifesto, the most important task of a writer is to be true to themselves. Natalie Goldberg, in her awesome Writing Down the Bones, calls this state of authenticity “metaphor”:
It comes from a place that is very courageous, willing to step out of our preconceived ways of seeing things and open so large that it can see the oneness in an ant and in an elephant…Your mind is leaping, your writing will leap, but it won’t be artificial. (37)
Jeff Davis, author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing, offers further insight on the necessity of writing authentically: “Part of writing the truth includes exploring the truth of our self (or selves).” He doesn’t mean writing memoir; he means writing honestly. According to Davis, a straightforward retelling of an event lacks the depth and complexity needed to create a powerful narrative. As writers, we must make connections by exploring the choices that led us to one outcome or another as well as the forces beyond our control, all of which leads naturally to an exploration of this mortal coil.
Deepening our personal exploration naturally results in deeper storylines in our fiction and in complex characters that speak to the universal human experience. Foregrounding these collective truths mean readers will see themselves in your tale, but only if you tell it true. I’ve seen this proven time and again in my two decades of teaching creative writing, where I’ve discovered one constant: people who live unexamined lives write boring shit. If a person doesn’t know the truth about themselves, they are not equipped to touch on bigger truths and writing without a deep level of personal and thus universal honesty is nothing more than a fancy grocery list.
Renowned writers agree. Eudora Welty claimed that the novel is the most truthful of all artistic mediums. According to Stephen King, compelling fiction is the truth inside the lie. Tennessee Williams describes writers as the opposite of magicians: magicians create an illusion that looks like truth, but a novelist hides the truth behind the illusion of fiction. Barbara Kingsolver argues that a writer’s main job is to figure out what she has to say that no one else can. Kurt Vonnegut, with his usual humor, said, “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?”
To discover your unique message, you must know yourself.
It’s not just writers who recognize this; readers understand it as well. Think of the last book that captured you and pulled you inside its sweet pages. What do you remember about it? What resonated with you? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t, “The main character did this, and this, and then this.” Compelling fiction offers more than a list of events. It offers Truth about ourselves and the world we live in.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Fiction is, paradoxically, the most honest mode of expression, and you can’t write it if you don’t practice it in your own life, any more than someone who doesn’t swim can be a lifeguard. You must be true to your roots. It is where you find your voice, what you need to write about, what you have the skillset and juice to make worth reading.
You must first know yourself to write authentic fiction, the kind that heals you, and that other people will pay to read.