“…good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are…. We have so much we want to say and figure out…. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)
I have a hard time telling the truth when I write (and other times, too, for that matter). Are you shocked?
For one thing, I’m not totally sure what the truth is, in a lot of cases. Some people seem to be able to easily figure out what they believe is the truth, in simple black and white terms — and then they are happy to assure anyone who disagrees or questions them, that they have the truth and the rest of us are … well, lost, I guess. I wonder how people can be so self-assured? Or, come to think of it, maybe they’re not self-assured and having a handy set of black and white beliefs is a good way to dodge those uncomfortable doubts?
I wonder, too, why I seem destined to see so many things in shades of grey (and no, I’m not referring to fifty shades, either). But I do want to understand who am I and why I’m here and what my purpose is and how that might work out in daily life.
Yet when I do reach some conclusion about what I believe Truth to be, I’m afraid to come right out and say it. I’m afraid I’ll be scorned — which I expect goes back to when I was young and started discovering that our family’s and our church’s beliefs were considered pretty uncool by the general public, including most of my friends. I really did want to be cool, to be accepted, to be approved. And I’ve never been able to shake that, I’m afraid. Yes, afraid. Even afraid of being considered a “heretic” by those whose ways and thoughts I have tried to back away from.
“Telling the truth in an interesting way…” Again, I’m afraid. I’m afraid that there are so many other people out there who can express themselves — in speech and in writing both — so much better than I can. I’ve never had much self-confidence. Then when I do gain some self-confidence, I feel this guilt that I’m being “proud” which is apparently a bad thing. We’re supposed to be humble, right? Especially as women (and especially, especially, as Christian women, you know).
Besides which, this little voice keeps nagging at me that women aren’t really supposed to think deeply about issues around truth; they’re supposed to submit to the ideas of men. Apparently determining truth, especially spiritual truth, is a male prerogative. Oh heck, just about any truth. At least that’s a “truth” that was buried deep in my psyche long ago, though I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t even believe that Jesus, a man, and Truth incarnate, believes or taught that. But there it is, rooted deep in me, anyway.
In real life, in my childhood, I was mostly a “good little girl.” But I always had trouble telling the truth. Because it seemed like there were so many possible ways to break the endless rules and get in trouble. Though I rarely meant to do so, it sometimes happened. Either I’d find myself doing something “wrong” or failing to do something I “should have done” (almost always discovering the wrongness of what I’d done, after the fact). So it became a safety valve to “tell little white lies” — occasionally straight-out lies, but more often “stretching the truth” or “neglecting to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
And, truth be told, that didn’t take long to evolve into telling entertaining stories about things that had happened and places I’d been. I’d get a “bit creative” with the details, because I noticed that people enjoyed listening to these slightly exaggerated stories, which was a good way to get the approval and kind of attention I craved. Along with being perceived as “cool,” of course. And while it always nagged at me a bit after the fact of the telling, in the midst of it I just couldn’t seem to stop myself. I knew how to embellish stories just enough to make them more entertaining and approving, without getting “caught in a lie.”
Anyway, it’s been a life-long habit that I still struggle with. Yes, it bothers me. Yes, I feel guilty. Yes, I do want to stop (sometimes). But I don’t want to be boring and I do want to make people laugh. In my speaking, yes, but also in my “creative non-fiction writing” which, I’m afraid (again) often leans more to the creative side than the non-fiction side.
Those little voices (which often sound like certain authoritative — and sometimes very beloved — people in my childhood) rise up in chorus to protest: “Making up fictional stories is right next to lying, and good little children don’t do that. You have been given a gift of intelligence and ability to read and write, and you must use them to write serious non-fiction with good moral teaching.”
We did precious little “creative writing” in school. In elementary, I suspect it had to do with our archaic principal who had no use or patience for foolishness like art and PE, nor for creative writing. High School English also focused on “serious” writing, and the minimal fiction we studied was analytic to the hilt, and certainly didn’t lead to fictional writing on our part. In grade 12, the school offered it’s first-ever creative writing course. Unfortunately, in the second lesson, in which we were to critique “creative writing stories” we’d pumped out in the first lesson (for many of us, our first-ever effort), the teacher announced to the class that Norma will “just love this awful, moralistic story [he was having us critique] because, after all, we all know that Norma’s dad is a Christian, and Norma goes to church and faithfully reads Sunday School papers that are just like this!” (He, as an avowed athiest, was apparently upset that his son had joined the Inter-School Christian Fellowship Club, which my dad sponsored. Oh, the joys of attending the same school your parent teaches in). In great indignation, I jumped up, yelled at him with great invective (so much for being a good little girl), stormed out, and never went back to his class. The end of my creative writing career at school. Though I did manage to take one semi-creative writing course at summer school while I was attending university. One. Semi.
But, oh my goodness, I should just get over it, right? And not let the past affect my writing now, 40 plus years later! Right? You’ll be relieved to know that I’ve cut out 2/3 of the rough draft of this piece. All the interesting, creative, adventuresome, sort-of-non-fiction parts.
Or maybe I should have just cut out the parts above, and shared those creative (non-fiction-ish) parts? I suspect that this, being the “truth,” has been as difficult and unpleasurable to read as it was to write. The creative bits (adventures with my own creative twist) would have been much more fun for all of us. Who needs to write the truth, anyway?
(There’s a whole chorus of squalling voices in my head just now. Stop!)