I teach people how to write. Specifically, I teach people how to access their authentic writing voice. My techniques aren't orthodox. I don’t believe that craft is the main ingredient of voice. I believe insight is.
We can only shepherd our readers as far and as deep as we've been willing to go ourselves. Much as we may write about fictional characters, there's an "I" in write. Writing is, at its core, an exploration of our own consciousness.
We’re all processing various levels of grief, loss, heartache — orphans of our consciousness that lie dormant and mask the real story inside of us that's crying out to be told. But we can’t get there without parenting those orphans or releasing them in some way.
"I don’t want to write about all my own pain," one woman told me on a retreat.
"That’s fine," I said. "We don’t have to write about our pain, but we must write from it."
Often we think we have a particular story we want to write. Sometimes this story is what I call a "distraction" story, as opposed to an authentic story.
We all have a front story that we present to the world, like the clothes we wear. It’s presentable and it looks groomed. But we also have an understory — the narrative equivalent of underwear — that few people see and we don’t generally show around. Actually, for some of us, we don’t even know what our understory is. Or we pretend we have a different one.
I believe that our real writing voice comes from that place, and I encourage you to go there. As Leonard Cohen says, "There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in," which he stole from Rumi, who said, "Look to your wounds. That’s where the light comes in."
So how do we tell if our story is a distraction story, or an authentic one?
1. Too safe: A distraction (or cosmetic) story is a safe story, and a safe story is not an interesting story. A distraction story will usually be some sort of cliché. If you don’t risk breaking apart, my advice is: find a harder story.
2. Potentially transformative: Stories are about character arcs — transformations from darkness to light (usually). Our own writing should mimic the story arc. We should be changed by the end. Writing is all about that journey of moving through pain into transformation.
3. Too neat: A neat story, like "happy childhood," "the love of my life," "the worst experience,"… is begging for investigation. The more polished a person’s story is, the more one-dimensional, the more the rubble beneath is being masked. Get your shovel and start digging. Make a mess.
4. A secret at the heart: Every story has a secret at its heart. It’s a secret we may not even know about up front. It cowers in the deep caves of our story. To find it, we have to get in there and lure it out. It’s no frolic in the park.
If our own writing doesn’t make us tremble just a little bit, we’re playing it safe. Safe writing is a paddle in the shallows. Be brave. Dive in. Find the story inside you that will change you in the telling, and in turn, those with whom you share it (go on, you’re braver than you think).