Writing is Easy – Honest


Ah, the solitude of writing...

Writing is a solitary endeavor, but most writers take the chance to reach out to their fellow wordsmiths, and I’m no exception. While it’s taken me a while to feel comfortable sharing new work — my plays, that is — in a class, workshop, or writers’ group, I have benefitted from the experience. I’m still less relaxed about offering my own comments; I feel so unsure about my own writing, what can I say that will help someone else? And given how slowly my brain functions at times, others have usually expressed what I was thinking – and in a more effective way than I ever could.

[An aside — my unease received a boost at the playwriting workshop I attended a few weeks ago. I shared my little piece and got some good feedback from our group of five writers. After another writer read, the rest of the group made comments that reflected what I thought; I pretty much didn’t say anything. When we were done, the writer/reader turned to me and said, “Thanks a lot, you bitch, for not saying anything after I gave you so much feedback.” Maybe that’s why I don’t really like this give-and-take among writers…]

Since the workshops and classes are fairly anonymous,  it’s easy to blow off comments you don’t like,  not worry about any lasting effects from opinions shared. But what happens when someone you know well asks for your opinion? How do walk that fine line between your desire to be supportive of and kind about anything they write – and their desire to hear constructive feedback, and perhaps praise – and the need to be honest? How much honesty is too much honesty? And not just in the criticism; even in the writing itself.

This scenario, as you might have guessed, emerged recently. Someone I know, a relative of a good friend, asked for comments on an essay she was thinking about trying to publish. My first reaction was, “Good lord, woman, I can’t help myself; what makes you think I can help you?” But I wanted to be supportive, and share whatever meager expertise I have. I think, in the end, I was able to do both. But the tricky part was, the essay was personal. The content made it hard for me to judge the form. And she admitted that the emotional rawness of the subject matter posed a challenge: How much of herself should she include, was bringing in her feelings obscuring the people and events she wrote about?

Wrong person to ask, ma’am. C?WC? and the solo show that proceeded it should be evidence enough that I am without barriers, messily so. Finding that line between “honest enough to impact others” and “Oh my god I didn’t need to know that” is not my strong suit. But I’ll share with you what I shared with her, an anecdote from the early days of my writing career, long before the Crisis:

Sophomore comp class in high school. The assignment: I no longer have a clue. My essay: a humorous, if exaggerated, look at the rituals my friends and I indulged in before the burning of a certain contraband substance. Now I admit, the key here, as teachers of non-fiction writing often say, was “know your audience.” This comp teacher was barely out of college, seemed hip, and not likely to report me to the authorities. Though he did say I should probably avoid writing about such things in the future. And he really liked the piece.

So what did I learn? Yes, know your audience. But more importantly, this: Open yourself to make an impact. The forbidden, the negative, the painful – if you can relate them to others in an honest way, you will be on the road to good writing. Of course some knowledge of grammar and such never hurts. And of words – which one should go where. The rhythm they create in that proper order. But when you take that open look into your soul, then hold up what you see; something magical can happen. Or something self-indulgent. Ah, another fine line.

I told my friend this story about my literary past, then said this: “Honesty strikes a chord. Even when it’s ‘too personal,’ too extreme. That’s what writers do. They explore the parts of their lives, of human existence, that everyone experiences but maybe feels reluctant to share.” But each writer has to answer for herself what she can share. Everyone has to find for themselves how honest they can be. With themselves and the world.

It ain’t always easy, in writing, or in life. Ideally, no one calls you a bitch for what you do or don’t share. And ideally, honest writing stirs something in the author and audience both.


~ by mburgan on November 8, 2009.

2 Responses to “Writing is Easy – Honest”

  1. It isn’t all that hard to write, but sometimes it is hard for me to get anyone to read it.

    Dr. B


  2. On the latter point–I know the feeling…

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