Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Ever

One of the rules we learn early on as writers is to use our ‘authentic’ voice when we write, but learning how to access that authentic voice is usually an elusive skill, not easily taught. It seems authenticity is like art: we know it when we see it.

If you don't feel quite this enthusiastic, don't worry.

If you no longer feel quite this enthusiastic, don’t worry.

When writing relies on tricks, gimmicks, gratuitous experimentation, or cleverness for its own sake, we feel manipulated, especially when it comes to replicating the voice of a child, I’ve noticed.

As a reader, I am particularly critical of reading books written from a child’s perspective, since children don’t have the vocabulary writers like to imbue them with. Also, children live very complicated lives, and can’t always make sense of what happens to them. I rarely feel as though I am reading a story authentically written from a child’s perspective. Children don’t seem to write a lot of stories for adult audiences, and the reason for that is key to what I’m trying to convey about finding one’s authentic voice.

Most advice about accessing your authentic voice tells you to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder. What happens, though, when guileless innocence is gone, and you are left feeling rather used up by life? Should you simply stop writing? Does this mean that you will never find your authentic voice? Maybe it means you are not meant to be a writer, because you can’t remember what it feels like to be a child, and, at least for the moment, the sense of wonder we associate with childhood floats away, a dimly-remembered colorful kite growing smaller and smaller on the breeze of all your yesterdays.

If, like me, locating your authentic self through a ‘childlike’ sense of wonder does not come easily, consider this: each day of your life, there has been at least one moment when you discovered something for the first time. It doesn’t matter how small—in retrospect—the moment might seem to you now. What matters is that you write about it from your own current, in-the-moment perspective. The ‘voice’ you write in has never seemed as important to me as the simple fact of the writing itself.

Most people stop themselves from writing, and then regret it later, because they trip over things like ‘voice’ and ‘authenticity,’ instead of saying to themselves some version of “I just need to write this down for myself.” That need is more authentic, in the moment, than worrying about what someone else thinks, and at least you’d be writing!

We are held to an impossible standard when we’re told we must somehow recreate our childhood sense of wonder, in my opinion. I remember feeling more confuddled by childhood than in a perpetual state of joyful wonder, and maybe you did too. 

The underlying emotional reality of authenticity is the feeling you get when you discover something new.  In essence, an authentic awareness of your own personal reality requires two things: being conscious, awake and aware of how you feel, and acknowledging your feelings instead of ignoring them or pushing them down, or denying you feel what you feel. If you want to deaden your authentic self, denying you feel what you feel is the fastest way to do it.

Authenticity is not about forcing yourself to do something you can’t. And if you can’t notice the world around you in a constant state of wondrous glee, I don’t blame you. Days of being in a bad mood are just as real as days of letting your thoughts wander into your inner rose garden; they may not feel as pleasant, but they’re just as real. Okay, maybe the sun isn’t shining on your inner landscape; maybe you don’t feel terribly imaginative. But consider that stories are written every single day about the most mundane things: washing dishes, cleaning up after children, changing flat tires.

Accessing authenticity when you’re no spring chicken becomes the question of one’s middle years

A great deal of writing is motivated by authentic curiosity. That means that most writing begins with curiosity about some subject or other; your curiosity leads you to do some form of research (either formal, through books and libraries, or informally, by observing your own or others’ behavior). We’ve all been told that this curiosity is fundamentally child-like, and of course children are curious, but so are adults.

You are, authentically, an adult. I have grown very tired of hearing, over and over, ad infinitum, how every single emotional state reverts back to our childhood. I disagree. Most of the emotions I experience now, I did not have the maturity or depth to experience when I was a child, if I could ever even remember them. If I were to write from my authentic childhood memories, I’d have to try to recreate that lack of sophisticated vocabulary, and that would mean my writing was highly inauthentic.

I say, start now, today, from where you are. If you want to begin with a state of wonder, let it be okay that your wonder might lack the same kind of wide-eyed innocence so valued by all the how-to books I read. I lack wide-eyed innocence; that fact does not make me inauthentic, nor should your maturity or age in years make you feel as though you cannot write ‘authentically.’ Seems to me that it’s more authentic to write about what you’re looking at through your kitchen window than it is replicating the experiences of yesteryear.

As an adult, if you want to jog the part of you that is far too jaded and experienced, all you have to do is take yourself out of your comfort zone. Go without electricity for 24 hours (a not uncommon experience here in the ‘great’ Northwest in the winter, it turns out). Stop eating meat. Don’t use your car unless you absolutely have to. Read a book you would never have read under any circumstances. Wear a color you usually avoid. Drink something electric blue. The key is to write about your response to anything you do, taking note of your feelings and what comes up for you as you try each new thing.

The primary difference between being an adult and seeing the world and being a child and seeing the world lies in how many things you have already done. As an adult, you have gotten used to doing many things a certain way, but it is disingenuous for us to pretend that as children, every single thing was new to us and we experienced each new thing that happened consciously and with total awareness. Childhood was not idyllic or even all that interesting for a lot of people, and is not necessarily representative of an emotional state we all want to hark back to. Maybe you felt idiotic and dumb as a kid; that’s okay. Just as many things are, or can be, new to you now. 

Therefore, never think you can’t write with new eyes, or authentically from a place of surprise and wonder—even if your sense of wonder is tempered by age and experience and is no longer dripping with the dew of your own personal spring morning.

All you have to do is step off the place where you currently stand, and do something even just a little bit different. You will have a new experience, and for most readers these days, reading about how you handled that new, yet very real, experience, is fascinating. This fact will always be true: humans want to know the real, true, authentic stories about other humans, fictionalized or not, and will always find those stories interesting. You might not believe that, but the next time you’re stuck in a long line at the grocery store and you catch your eye wandering to the bright cover of People magazine, you will be another moth drawn to the flame of the human drama.

Tell it like it is (for you), as they used to say. That’s as authentic as it gets—or needs to be, for that matter. 

Making Peace With Time

What is the meaning of time?

When you’re deep in the midst of flow, you have no awareness of time passing. Your mind, intentions, and will connect, and time, as they say, flies.

It’s the rest of the time that turns us into philosophers as we try to make peace with time.

Coming to an acceptance of how you use and misuse your time, as a writer, is a daunting prospect. Making peace with the way you think about your work as a writer can be something we really just don’t ever let ourselves dwell on; after all, the word ‘writing’ is a verb. When we want to write, we’re supposed to be doing something associated with writing, ‘doing’ being the operative term.

How you imagine the concept of time has everything to do with your identity as a writer. Time does not seem like much of a metaphor when a clock ticks loudly nearby. Time is not a philosophical construct when you’re brushing your teeth—but we don’t think about the amount of time brushing one’s teeth requires. We’re too busy doing it to think about the nature of time, or to think that the amount of time we spend doing quotidian tasks, applied to writing, would seem inadequate to the task of writing (or so we believe).

Those who write must think consciously and deliberately about time— resistant or reluctant writers even more so—because the idea of time fills our thoughts in a way it does not for any other pastime. We become obsessed with the amount of time we have to spend writing. We measure the quality of the way time passes. We assess each moment critically, asking ourselves whether we’re ‘doing’ anything purposeful. Writers, and those who want to write, but aren’t, are terribly aware of

each

passing

second

as though the sun were perpetually sinking beneath our personal horizon.

Those who want to write are painfully aware of how little time is available to do the one thing they’ve decided they most want to do. When it comes to writing, we give time an awful lot of power, if you think about it. Ask yourself if there’s any other task in the course of your day you glorify in this way? If you break down the way you spend each minute of the day, you’ll find that you really don’t need anywhere near as much time to get something written as you might believe you do.

And yet, the illusion prevails that we must allot a significant amount of time to the task if we’re to give our writing the attention it deserves. It’s the way we think about writing in the first place that creates our perception of time. I see this belief often, in aspiring writers in particular. Until the writer makes peace with time and gets control over the emotions that prevent him from doing something as straightforward (yet difficult) as believing that fifteen minutes a day will lead to a finished manuscript soon enough, he will continue to procrastinate about his writing project.

The key to managing your sense of time when you want to write is to make an appointment with yourself. However, to do that, you have to first take yourself and your need to write seriously. I believe this is the most difficult hurdle for too many writer-wannabes. It’s difficult even for those who are familiar with this process, who know what to expect. There are too many hurdles, and too many books tell you some version of “oh, quit wallowing in your fears and just get on with it!”

The writer who lets himself believe that unless he has a full year of completely free days to write his novel is trapped in a perception that amount of time available to complete a task equals quality of outcome. In no other area of life do we make that belief limit our behavior as severely as we do with writing. It’s because of our beliefs about what writing means, what it entails, and what the doing of it requires that we tell ourselves we don’t have enough time to write.

It’s only when you begin to think of yourself as a writer, and at the same time, discipline yourself to see writing as a task that can be accomplished within a set amount of time each day (a half hour, for example; no more, no less—it’s important to break down the task into manageable chunks of time) that you begin to get some control over your ideas about how writing and time are interwoven.

Once we stop putting writing on the mystical pedestal we have it on, and turn it into a task that requires only a reasonable amount of time each day to effect the perfectly reasonable outcome you desire, which is to emerge, over time, with a publishable manuscript, we’ll see writing for what it is: a technē, an ability we can hone and polish with care and time.

Although Ms. Doughty over-emphasises writing’s difficulty at times, her overall approach is practical and wise.

Come to the task of writing believing that you will best accomplish your eventual goal, whether it is to publish one novel or fifteen articles, by:

#1: Breaking down your larger goal down into reasonable, manageable units of time. Fifteen minutes a day is completely adequate until you’ve built up enough material to build on.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by saying, “I have to write the Great American Novel in one year.”

You very well might write the Great American Novel in one year, but not unless you determine ahead of time how much time you can reasonably spare each day to get some—not all; not a chapter, maybe not even an entire page, but some—writing done.

It is entirely realistic to think you can write a novel in one year, and/but it will require self-discipline, and self-discipline means you cannot give in to the mystique that the “best” writing can only be done with a free year of no outside work impinging on your time.

Most writers of great renown were working at some other job when they wrote their first, second, and even third or fourth novels. Don’t quit your day job, not because you lack talent, but because you do not have to.

#2: Placing a boundary around your work: set up a space and time that is inviolate and cannot be interrupted or affected by the outside world and its demands. Take your needs seriously, and don’t be swayed from your goals.

#3: Thinking about your relationship to time. Do you think about time philosophically? Metaphorically? Philosophical attitudes to the passing of time allow us to see our use of time from a larger perspective. It’s difficult to panic about having enough time to write when you know, with certainty, that you will have all the time you need—you simply have to believe it.

#4: Asking yourself, what metaphors do you use to describe time? Do you “spend” time? Do you feel that time “has gotten away” from you? Listen carefully to the metaphors you use to describe time; they will tell you a great deal about the attitudes you have that hold you back from believing in yourself as a writer.

Most importantly, do not intimidate yourself into the fear that you cannot do this. You can.

Setting your writing compass

Begin with where you are now, in the present

When you set out on a journey of any length, it’s reassuring to have a general notion of where you’re going.

The same can be said of writing, but since there are few absolute parameters set for most writing situations, knowing your ultimate destination, as though you were a train heading for a particular station, can be daunting.

There is much about writing that feels intimidating, and the idea of having complete control over one’s writing experience is illusory if you’re not sure why you’re writing, what your goals are, or what your intention is.

Your response, if you’re overwhelmed, is not to write at all, so as to avoid something that feels confusing and difficult. Think about the issues that then become barriers to writing:

  • Not knowing what to say; precision eludes you; you’re confused
  • Feeling unfocused and irritable, barely perceptible thoughts poke at you, demanding shape and form that you can’t give them
  • Now knowing why you should write, or what your motivation is
  • Negative self-talk: the chattering inner voice of self-criticism, self-doubt, fears, anxiety, ego, anger, obsession
  • Attachment to outcome
  • Wasting time, or using the time you do have available for writing to complain that if only you had more time, you’d get more writing done

There are useful steps to take when you want to write, but you’re feeling overwhelmed and directionless. The antidote to not knowing one’s intention, purpose, goal or direction can be found in the concept of mindfulness. If getting started presents this much of a challenge, learning how to practice mindfulness, where you are consciously aware of each action, each thought, in any given moment, helps focus your mind on the direction you want your writing to take.

Ask yourself what truly matters to you

To be mindful, as a writer, means being consciously aware of your environment, your feelings, your visceral self.

Your visceral self exists alongside your intellectual self, the self with all the racing thoughts that lead you nowhere. If thoughts are the rats in the maze, your viscera are observing the rats, the maze, the thoughts themselves. Your visceral self is highly aware, at any given moment, of your perceptions of reality.

Awareness of one’s sensory perception is taught to creative writers. Creative writing teachers say: Pay attention to your surroundings; notice what that woman over there is wearing; describe her clothes. Notice what color the sky is, and try to describe it accurately. Don’t say ‘it’s blue.’ It’s not blue, not if you look carefully. When you really look, you’ll see it’s dove grey with light blue-tinged clouds shading into silver.

I remember this lesson very well from my creative writing classes, because without these teachers, I possibly would never have learned the word ‘obsidian,’ a wonderful word that perfectly describes some shades of grey sky, as well as being a variety of rock. Some dark clouds have obsidian underbellies in the moments prior to pouring stinging cold rain on your head.

Once you start to really notice the world around you, to pick up and touch stones, and feel their soft smoothness; or notice if your body is tired, if you’re thirsty, how your skin stings when the sun gets too hot; to notice when you suddenly hold your breath, or are aware of how that glass of water tastes… how cool, sharp and hard the glass feels in your mouth, against your tongue… all of these fractions of moments are part of what it is to be mindful.

When you approach your writing from this perspective, your thoughts are already focused, conscious and aware. Sit in this open state, quietly, with no distractions, for a few minutes, noticing with acuity everything around you—the quality of the light in the room, the precise color of your chair, the way the fabric feels under your hand—and then add deep, repetitive breathing (two or three deep breaths) until some kind of answer to this question comes to you:

Why do I want to write [fill in the blank: this book; this poem; at all]?

There was a time when I had no idea why I wanted to write, because I had no idea what it was I wanted, or needed, to say. In 1991, I started teaching adults creative writing classes at night. Did I know, in 1991, what my goal was, my ultimate purpose for writing? I did not. It took me years to discover what I want and need to say, and how I want my contribution to be that I help change the paradigm we have inherited about writing. This goal is what fuels almost all my writing now, but I didn’t know it consciously when I got started. I had to listen for this knowledge along the way. I had to wade through ego, too.

Listen to yourself; you know what you need to write about

At one point, about ten years ago, when I asked myself (again) “Why am I writing?” the answer was “to get published.” At the time, I believed I needed to get published. I needed it for my ego, for one thing, and I needed it if I was going to be taken seriously as an academic. However, I also have the conflicting lack of desire to be on display, to be ‘famous,’ or even to be known. So there was an egolessness warring inside of me, alongside my egoic need for achievement.

The middle ground I found to put those conflicting needs to rest began to emerge over time. I had to sit with my desire to write many times, asking, over and over again, “Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? What is it that I need that I can’t get any other way?” before it became clear to me that no matter what happens, whether I get published or not, I really do need to get this message out: that we need to see writing differently, we need to have a different way of looking at our need to create, to express ourselves.

So that eventually, when I asked myself “Why am I writing? What is motivating me, what is my purpose?” the answer came back: I want people to be free from their limiting self-talk. I want everyone who wants and needs to write to feel free to do so. I want people to stop believing that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write.

So, that’s why I write. Because if I don’t, I won’t get this message out, and it has to be heard until it is believed, until the paradigm changes, until our beliefs change.

Now we need to find out what motivates you. Why do you write? Why do you want to write, if you’re not currently writing? Once an answer comes to the surface, or the forefront of your mind, then we can state an intention: I want to [fill in the blank]. Only then can you set a direction on your writer’s compass. Without intention, you are directionless, and you will write aimlessly, with no discipline, if you write at all.

Writing as a way of healing

Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives opens with these lines:

“Writing has helped me heal. Writing has changed my life. Writing has saved my life.”

She says that writing has helped her friends, students, and other writers heal from loss, grief, or personal tragedy. Writers who have endured personal trauma turn to their diaries, or write memoirs, fiction, poetry, and biographical essays as a means of making sense of what happened to them.

In fact, I have found that these are some of the life events that too often prevent writers from writing in the first place; we don’t feel strong enough in the face of life trauma to be able to get past the depths of our pain. The interesting thing is, if you think about it, most writing is about something truly awful that happened to someone; or it refers to an emotionally turbulent time in someone’s life, or it deals with an otherwise difficult subject, hard to understand, even harder to talk about.

Writers who find a way to broach their pain enter into terrain that often threatens to pull them under if they don’t express the emotions in some way.

You don’t have to rely solely on writing, though; painting, music, dance, or theatre, are all effective ways to crack open your creativity. No matter how you express yourself, the goal is to allow yourself to have these feelings, to get them out: “If we begin to value our creative urges, we begin to value ourselves. If we deny our creative urges, we deny that our lives have meaning and significance.” 

Yet we stop ourselves from expressing these truths, often for very good reasons. They are too painful, or too near, or too personal. Often, we can barely think about these things, let alone write about them, or tell anyone else what happened. For this reason, DeSalvo suggests having professional guidance to help you cope with your memories.

You can’t run the risk of re-traumatizing yourself without a professional there to guide you through whatever comes up. DeSalvo says “letting ourselves have our emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them as we work is an important (and all-too-often ignored) skill for us to develop,” but having our emotions is risky without someone who has traversed the terrain available during this process.

Because the piece of writing is “complete” when you read it (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Fitzgerald’s memoir of his nervous breakdown at thirty-nine, The Crack-Up),it isn’t immediately obvious that these famous writers were once in pain, struggling with life experiences, using writing as their “sturdy ladder out of the pit.”

DeSalvo, quoting Fitzgerald, says during the process of writing The Crack-Up, this multiply published author, already famous in his own time, learned “he’d led an inauthentic life, a non-reflective, reactive life.” He had done “very little thinking”… rather than knowing himself, he had allowed others to tell him who he was. He admitted to always feeling confused, which lead to his desire “to go out and get drunk.”

If the writing is to be a healing experience, though, we must rely on “nonjudgemental, self-reflective witnessing of ourselves as writers” which helps us “not ruminate about our feelings (a destructive practice) or to engage in accusation or self-blame.” Instead, as I will discuss in another entry, DeSalvo suggests keeping a process journal which “invites us to focus upon defining ourselves as active and engaged, not as passive, helpless and hopeless.”