10 reasons why daring to share may be the best thing you ever did
A scene from The Writers' Circle in The Hague; credit Natalie Carstens
“What’s so interesting about me?”
“But isn’t writing about myself just self-indulgent?”
“Aren’t I just being a narcissist?”
“Isn’t it a bit of a pity-party?”
These are typical of the questions I get asked when running a writing workshop. Many students are understandably nervous about sharing true stories about some of the bad things that have happened to them.
I don’t agree.
In 2018, Terry Anne Wilson and I published Monday Morning Emails. It was the most honest and open book I had ever written. I shared about the abuse I suffered as a child, the mental health issues my twenty-something was going through, the pain of living a life in limbo as an expatriate whose next posting was controlled not by us but by my husband’s company. I shared about the ageing and illness of my father, who passed away soon after the book’s release. These and many other issues. Yes it was tough to do. Yes, Terry Anne and I sometimes questioned our motives but deep down we both knew that no one else had yet dared to share such truths about the mobile life and it needed to be done. The outpouring of gratitude and the emotional reviews we received since, prove we did the right thing.
And so, when I’m teaching, I do my best to soothe the worries of my students and encourage them to put pen to paper and even go so far as to press the terrifying Postbutton on their blog or social media platform. Here are some of the reasons I believe daring to share tough stuff is worthwhile:
Memoir hangs 100% on voice.
It's hard to believe that it took me so long to discover the work of Mary Karr. Karr is professor of writing at Syracuse University and her programmes are desperately over-subscribed. Yes, she is that good.
I first discovered her memoir, The Liar's Club, when it was recommended to me by a therapist, impressed by the way Mary managed to write to candidly and yet without indulgence about her dysfunctional childhood.
As I read, sure, I was delighted to see how she tackled the subject matter, but more than anything I was blown away by her style. Here was a writer who broke the rules, finished sentences with prepositions and had a tone that was completely her own.
After The Liar's Club I headed straight for Karr non-fiction book, The Art of Memoir, and it was here that I read the words:
"Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself onto the page What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention."
In other words, you have to be true to yourself, your meaning and your story and the way you write must reflect this.
I went on from The Liar's Club to read Karr's second memoir, Lit, which tells of her failed marriage, her battle with alcoholism and the jerky progression of her career as a writer. Let me give you an example of her voice, found on the page that faced me when I cracked open Lit's spine at a random place:
"By age thirty, I'm not writing squat, which I blame on my ramped-up consulting schedule, knowing full well my favorite poet was a full-time insurance exec. Warren keeps urging me to deal with my complicated family on the page, but that seems too damp-eyed, though even I know the crap I crank out referring to Homer and Virgil is pretentious before Warren carefully pens pretentious on page bottom."
You see what I mean about voice? Sure, it's about what you write about, but it also about how you say it. If you are still confused, go read Mary Karr.
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What do you think of my new phrase – writing ugly?
A few weeks ago I got an email from one of my current mentees, Keri.
“I guess my biggest fear is that the book just keeps dragging on and I’ll never finish it unless I give myself some targets,” she wrote. “ I want to embrace the writing 'ugly' concept we talked about.”
Like we talked about? Did we? Did I come up with that fab phrase? Sometimes I surprise even myself with my word acrobatics. I basked in the glow for a few moments, but deep down I knew this was not my phrase. It was not my phrase but I wanted it. Badly.
Ever since I found the wonderful Anne Lamott’s phrase the Shitty First Draft in her book, Bird by Bird, it has helped me and my students out of many a sticky situation. I love it and use it so much that folk now know it by the acronym SFD.
I can credit the Shitty First Draft as the reason I manage to write quite so much. 32 books and counting and still the irresistible ideas keep coming, usually in the middle of the night. I write this newsletter, I write poems, I write a journal and I write blogs and articles and every single time I stand by the SFD. I love it because, like with a belch, it’s ‘better out than in’. I know I’ll feel better about myself if I have written something, however badly, and reached the end. The thoughts and ideas have been set free of the bustling city that inhabits my mind and are on the page.
I love the SFD. I need the SFD and yet writing ugly has me in its thrall. Writing ugly seems to take the SFD a step further; it’s as if it wants me to write badlyon purpose. And, as I lay there, wide awake, one evening around midnight last week, I realized the power of this new phrase.
Writing ugly is about writing a scrappy, illegible table of contents for that book on a piece of paper you tear from the back of a book.
Writing ugly is about setting the timer for ten minutes and making yourself write with no particular direction in mind, again longhand, just to see where the words take you.
Writing ugly is about chucking random phrases down, one on each line and calling the result a poem on short lines, like novelist Catherine Cookson did.
Writing ugly is about ‘putting your pen on the paper and just going’, as Natalie Goldberg instructs in her seminal book on speedwriting, Writing Down the Bones.
Writing ugly is about sending your sabotaging inner perfectionist on a long hike.
Because, you see, the fundamental difference between the Shitty First Draft and writing ugly is that there is no sense even of ‘draft’ in the new phrase. And without the pressure of the knowledge that what you put down has to ultimately be useable, you can let rip. What does it matter if what you throw at the page never actually turns into a draft of something?
I had to thrash it out with Keri.
“Is that my phrase or yours?” I asked her. “Because I think I want to adopt it.”
“I think it’s mine, actually,” she wrote. “But you came up with the title for my book and so you can keep it. By the way, I plan to write ugly from 1 Feb - 30 April to really make some progress. I realise, after the ugly writing there will still need a whole lot of re-writing/edits afterwards...”
Keri knew intuitively that writing ugly was akin to limbering up, flexing her writing muscles and simply getting words down on paper and out of her head and the ether. She knew that it was a preliminary stage and gave me the credit for an idea that was actually all hers.
So there it is. I have taken my new phrase for its first outing. What do you think? Will it catch on?
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