There are many things (in the order of gazillions) that separate good writing from bad writing—avoiding words like gazillion, for one—or at least that separate writing that gets read from writing that doesn’t. One, big difference keeps popping up wherever I look.
Susan Shapiro describes it as the humiliation essay. She has a long list of people who have kick started careers with honest accounts of their most difficult, humiliating, or scary experiences/secrets/obsessions/etc. Brené Brown calls it vulnerability, a requirement not only for rewarding work or creativity, but critical in all aspects of life.
We all respond to this bald-faced honesty. We want to see that someone else has the same humiliating flaws we do—preferably, without admitting that we share in them—even if that someone is fictional.
In Make Good Art (notice I’ve linked to it in two consecutive posts. If you have seen it, I highly recommend you watch it on YouTube), by Neil Gaiman refers to it as ‘walking down the street naked’. The most apt description, I think. It basically boils down to this: The thing you’re afraid to write, because you might have to change your name and move out of town if anyone ever reads it, that’s what people want to read the most.
And it’s not just about non-fiction. In fiction we can tell when a writer is pulling back on the emotion of a character, or having the character take the slightly safer, more acceptable, more defensible road. We’re disappointed. We want to see the characters do or say the things we are too afraid, or embarrassed, to.
I know this is true…and I hate it. Or, more accurately, I’m afraid of it. I love to write and create fictional worlds and characters. I want my writing to be honest, open, and unapologetic, something people can connect with. Still, when it comes down to it, I hedge, evade, pull back, or delete all together.
I know some of the characters I write come out a bit like me. It would be hard to avoid that even if I wanted to. However, I’m yet to create a character that even comes close to demonstrating the good, the bad, and the ugly that is me. The parts of me I hide in real life, I hide in writing too. Even when the plausible deniability of fiction is there to shelter me.
Non-fiction scares the crap out of me completely. At least in so far as it has anything to do with me personally. Yes, I write this blog, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the level of openness and honesty that I see on some of the blogs I follow.
As I was reading Susan Shapiro’s article in Writer’s Digest about the rewards of humiliation essays—even if they never see the light of day, they are therapeutic—an idea for a story popped into my head, one actually based on reality (I’ve only written one story to date that related at all to real-life events, and it was a loose connection at that). Then my brain immediately erected a wall around it. Nope can’t write that. It’ll hurt people I care about, it’ll hurt me, people will see me differently, etc, etc. Even knowing I could write it and never let anyone see it doesn’t bring the wall down.
And I’m not even talking about anything anywhere near the kind of trauma some people are courageous enough to share. Actually, I’m not sure what scares me more; that my story is weird, that it’s mundane, or that I can’t tell one way or the other.
I recently started following Young House Love, a blog that chronicles the DIY adventures of a couple about my age. I don’t own a house at the moment, and even when I did I was only DIY in the ‘What’s the cheapest way to solve this problem?’ kind of way. Rather than the ‘Yay! What an adventure!’ kind of way. Still, I love reading about their projects because they share everything. The successes, the mistakes, the bad choices, and what’s going on with them personally along the way.
I follow blogs not just about writing, but about life, illness, family, infertility, you name it, for the very reason that the people behind them are putting their whole selves out there for the world to see. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the subject is of particular relevance to my life. I develop an interest in the people. This holds for fiction also. Too me, a good crime story has me more interested in the crime solver than the crime solving.
Then there are the blogs that are relevant to my life. Then I can really see what a coward I am.
I am currently struggling with fertility issues. And that is as much as you’re likely to hear about it on this blog (as I write this there is still only a 50/50 chance it will make it to the final, posted version). Meanwhile, there are blogs out there where women (and men) are sharing every step their most excruciating experiences, painful journeys that can go on for years, in vivid detail. No apologies. For those, like me, who barely talk about it with their best friends, these people are a godsend: Dreaming of Diapers, A Calm Persistence, and Young Yet Infertile to name a few.
All this to say, if being a good writer means walking down the street naked, I’m still wearing my shorts and t-shirt (and longing for my parka). But I’m working on it.