Red faces and red pencils – writing, blushing, editing and digging for truth, by Rosalie Warren

'Embarrassed dragon' (Public domain photograph - courtesy of Pixabay)

‘Truth’ is under discussion a great deal at present, for very obvious and necessary reasons. The truth about the external world is one thing, but what about truth in fiction? Why do certain novels irritate me beyond belief, by portraying a world that I do not recognise? Not one that is outside my own experience – I love to read about such worlds – but one that bears little relation to my own observations about myself and other people by presenting as ‘normal’ and ‘desirable’ some kind of ideal person I know I can never be? I appreciate that fiction meets a wide range of needs, not least of which is to escape from the real world and our own lives, but the kind of books I like to read (and try to write) do more than that – they latch on to something that I think can be called truth, whether or not we want to resort to high-sounding terms like ‘the human condition’.

‘Write what you know’ is regarded by many writers nowadays as an outmoded cliché. We often point out that it’s good to find out something new. ‘Write what interests you’ (‘write what you want to know’?) may well be better advice. ‘Write what scares you’ (this, I think, comes from Stephen King!) is a good one, too. I’ve never, though, been advised to ‘write what embarrasses you’, and it strikes me that this can be one of the biggest challenges of all. I don’t mean sex scenes especially – let’s get that out of the way. I’m not particularly embarrassed to write about sex and I don’t think many people of my generation (and younger generations) are. How to make sex scenes interesting – now there is the real challenge. But going back to ‘embarrassment’ – I mean the things that really redden our faces and make us feel a sort of shame, like the fact that I am back on anti-depressants (yes, I do find this hard to admit, to everyone, including my nearest and dearest). I’m also embarrassed to admit to most people that I hate parties and similar events and find small talk very stressful, although I have trained myself over the years to be able to do it, more or less. Another thing that I’m embarrassed to mention here: as an adolescent I couldn’t bring myself to ask my mother for a bra and didn’t get one until I was fifteen and had been flopping around at the front for at least two years. (I have never told that to anyone before writing it here. Honest.) Sort of funny, perhaps – I don’t mind if you laugh – but it still makes me blush. There’s an even more embarrassing thing I could tell you about deodorant, but it’s a confession too far and you almost certainly wouldn’t want to hear it.

Or would you? I think I might, if someone were telling it to me. When I read material that people send me for editing, I love the bits that sneak in and perhaps don’t really belong in that piece of work at all. I’m not exactly looking for stuff that gives away the writer’s secrets – though that can be good. It’s more that a person’s strongest writing can often be found in the sticky-outy bits that don’t fit with the rest. The bits that the editor (and sometimes the author) is tempted to red-pencil or delete.

It’s so easy to delete forever, on a computer. Even if you save the original in another file, it’s no longer in front of your eyes. It’s easy to think that the stuff you wrote at midnight, perhaps with tears streaming down your face because it was so blooming hard, deserves to die when morning comes. ‘Murder your darlings’ and all that. But I don’t think the kind of darlings we should consider murdering are of that kind at all. The ones we should kill are the passages that make you pat yourself on the back – you know, your brilliant description of a sunset with its metaphor for the end of life (ok, that could be all right, but sometimes it’s definitely not). A darling that should not be murdered, I believe, is one where you manage to put into words just a little of how it feels to wake up believing your life has been a total f***-up. Or your painfully-wrought description of remembering in the early hours that last thing you said to your mother before she died that you can never take back… it wasn’t horrible, it was just so uncalled-for… stuff you label ‘too personal’ or maybe ‘shameful’ and excise because it’s, well, embarrassing. If we’re not careful (I speak for myself here) we edit our work for ‘shame’ – telling ourselves that no one will be interested in that, when what we really mean is: ‘I can’t let this be seen – what will they think of me, even if I give it to one of my characters?’

Sometimes I despair about how little truth there is in what I write. I don’t mean that I’m deliberately lying or intentionally covering anything up. I mean this business of presenting your better side, pretending to be like everyone else, writing about people who are like the rest of people you know or the kind of person you would like to be, rather than like your true self. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to everyone. Perhaps it only applies to non-neurotypical types like me, though I know I’m not the only odd-bod who writes. It’s tempting to cover up the rough bits, apply a thick layer of concealer to the blemishes and make sure your oddities don’t show (and then you wonder why you’ve lost touch with your real self!). Of course, there’s a place for being smooth, for being professional, for not showing everything to everyone. But surely there should also be a place to reveal the things that make us embarrassed and ashamed, and if this is not in our writing (or in some of our writing), then where can it possibly be?

Writing what’s embarrassing is only one way of writing what is true. It’s not always appropriate, of course, but my plea is that we are less quick with the ‘for shame, delete’ key when we read our own first drafts. I try not to use the red pen so much nowadays when editing the work of others. Yes, I may suggest that something doesn’t belong in the place they’ve put it… but I try to listen, and if it has that special ring of truth about it, if I sense it’s breaking up the ground in some way, perhaps for that writer, perhaps even for writing in general, then I will advise them to save it – to consider it afresh and perhaps even see it as the germ of a whole new piece of work. I’m trying lately to be kinder to my own work in that way, too. 

Natalie Goldberg is good on this* - on the discipline of daily writing practice, on writing whatever rubbish might emerge until you break through to some kind of truth. That truth can be buried deep, and sometimes a lot of crud needs to come out before we can release the thin little stream that’s our lifeblood. Think of squeezing a pimple (that’s my disgusting metaphor, not hers). 

Discovering truth is one of the things that writing is about. Whatever we write, be it fiction, non-fiction, memoir, journalism; be it books, short stories, poems or songs, we owe it to ourselves and our readers (especially in these recent disturbing times) to do our utmost to dig deep and squeeze it out.

*See her Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986), for example.

Best wishes and happy truth-ing 

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Umberto Tosi said…
I really loved "Writing Down the Bones." I do a lot of writing rubbish. I don't know if I find truth, or just wear myself out and go with what I got. I start out vowing to "write what I know," but invariably end up far off the map - for example in 16th-century Denmark (as I did in Ophelia Rising), or just recently, in Sicily with two cousins staring up at Mt. Etna. Thanks for your stimulating post that reassures me I'm not completely crazy! :)
Umberto Tosi said…
... of course, we can take solace in what Mark Twain said: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." :D
"I mean this business of presenting your better side, pretending to be like everyone else, writing about people who are like the rest of people you know or the kind of person you would like to be, rather than like your true self." I wrestle with this ALL THE TIME :)
Wendy H. Jones said…
Very well said. I think we all, to some extent, are embarrassed to be real. We put on a front and tell the world we are just like everyone else. Wouldn't it be a great world if we were honest.
Anonymous said…
This is so good. Given that in fiction, something that goes barely noticed in everyday life (a character swearing, or slamming a door) looms so much larger (obviously, or why would the author have included it) - then anything even mildly embarrassing takes a lot of courage to write down! The super writing magazine MsLexia encourages readers to contribute articles under various themes, and a current one is, to describe an incident which you feel ashamed to look back on. Brave people have done this but not me. I have plenty of possible examples of making an idiot of myself but the things I feel most ashamed about are where I've behaved badly, unkindly, thoughtlessly, and other people have suffered. Why would I want to advertise that? Perhaps that's the difference between shame (for hurting others) and embarrassment (where you can at least laugh at yourself for being a twit).
Bill Kirton said…
This was a lovely, warm 'confessional' piece, Ros. In the present climate of 'alternative facts', I'd toyed with the idea of writing a blog about 'truth'. It would have been the usual rambling stuff about there being no single truth and that our fictions offer not alternative facts but alternative truths. Your approach, though, is far more interesting and compelling because of how direct and personal it is. You're hiding nothing (except for that tantalising aside on deodorants) and the unadorned honesty of it was a joy. Thank you.
Kathleen Jones said…
A brilliant post, Ros. Thank you.

Popular posts

Economy of Words by @EdenBaylee

Rebooting myself: N M Browne

From a Publishing House

Are you wearing a mask this summer? - Katherine Roberts

A Commissioned Piece! by Rituparna Roy