Writing Authentically

I wrote a post for my coaching blog this morning, that I will never publish. In my opinion, it’s really honest and could help a lot of people. It’s also…not my story. Or, really, it’s not just my story. It involves someone else and there is no way I can make my point without telling the other person’s story.

I knew this after the second sentence. But I wrote it anyway. Because it was what my heart wanted to write in that moment. I wrote it with all the details that made the experience so important to me and I shared what I learned from it. But it’ll never see the light of day. And that’s okay with me.

Because it’s better to write it as authentically as possible, and decide not to share it, than to write a sanitized version of it and have it move no one, not even me.

I’ve come to believe this after many years of writing whitewashed versions of the truth, even in my journal. Once I realized someone could pick up my journal and read it (‘cause it happened!) I started “editing” my journal entries. That habit spilled over into all my other writing and it took me years to realize it.

Once I started sharing my memoir writing with others in a class, I got the same comments over and over.

“The story’s good, but there’s no emotion in it.”

“How did you feel? We want to know.”

I started to see how I was “cleaning up” events in my life and started to change that, at first only in my journal, but then, increasingly, in my memoir writing.

It’s become a habit now, one that I don’t want to backslide on. So my first draft contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then, later versions can be cut to fit my audience—not cut to fit my fear of what other people will think.

And the blog post I wrote this morning? Having written it as honestly as I can, I can go back and rewrite it to keep the truth of what happened and what I learned from it, without including the details that only identify the other person involved. What I wrote this morning will never see the light of day, but hopefully the kernel of truth will remain as I rewrite it (and rewrite it, and rewrite it!)

It’ll take some work, and it won’t happen overnight, but I can do it. I’ve learned that writing authentically is the only way to go.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD, is a full-time mom, part-time writer, part-time life coach. Find her at her website, http://www.dianemackinnon.com.

37 thoughts on “Writing Authentically

  1. I guess there are things that other people would not want you to write about them (say, illegal/immoral behavior) but those have to be pretty rare, aren’t they? I guess it depends what sort of crowd you hang with.

    I hear this a lot from bloggers: there are certain areas that are off limits. The fact is, my life on its own isn’t all that interesting. If I don’t include my experiences w/others, my interactions w/others–what am I left to write about? It’s this sort of self-censorship that makes writing tedious and mundane.

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your comments. I have found that some people are okay with me sharing some details about their lives, and others don’t want any mention, even if shows them in the very best light. I write about my husband a lot, for example, but I ask his permission before I post anything about him. I recently wrote a blog post that mentioned the fact that he snores (in my life coaching blog at http://www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.) There are a lot of people in my life who would not be okay with me saying publicly that they snore, even though I don’t think that’s a very private detail.

      I agree that the most interesting experiences in our lives involve interactions with others, but I feel that we need to respect the wishes and privacy of others, and I feel that part of the art of writing is to be able to express the truth of those interactions without putting anyone on the spot.

      Self-censorship was a problem for me for a long time, and I agree with you that it makes writing tedious and mundane. I look back as some of my old journals and I could cry–it’s all “then this happened, then that happened” with no emotion, no opinion–talk about tedious!

      Good luck with your writing and thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. I disagree Karen, self-censorship, when used properly can enhance later writing. We need to show we have integrity and put our brains into gear before publishing. Rather like gossip the written word can cause a lot of pain and harm where none was intended. That can be avoided by exercising a little commonsense and integrity.

    Your life and experiences are interesting to others believe me and yes, your interaction with others adds interest to your writing too. All you need do is make sure identities are not included. Write honestly but with humanity.

    As Diane says in her final pars “Having written it as honestly as I can, I can go back and rewrite it to keep the truth of what happened and what I learned from it, without including the details that only identify the other person involved.”

    • Hi Rhonda,
      I agree with you! The censorship has to be about personal details, not about the truth or the heart of the encounter. And that is part of the art, the joy, and the challenge of writing true stories.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. We strive to strike that balance between our real thoughts and emotions (unfiltered) and what we want to tell the world (filtered). I believe that dichotomy will always exist. I know that what I write in my journal can often never be shared. It’s my therapy and the only place I can rant uncontrollably and be nonsensically joyful and anything in between.
    If I were to tell my life story the presentation would have to be different and contain a certain amount of “whitewashing” and I suppose that’s why I don’t write a memoir. Don’t know if I could do well with that genre.
    I get around this a little bit by writing essays, by writing fiction that contains elements of my life experience. That’s about as publicly truthful as I think I’ll ever get because I like to remain a private person.
    You have guts Lady! 🙂

    • Hi Laura,
      Thanks for your comments. I really feel strongly that we learn and are inspired by stories, so I try really hard to tell (true) stories that have a positive impact while still protecting the privacy of those around me. Otherwise, I would just make stuff up, which is really fun!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  4. Could the piece be written as fiction and still keep the integrity? I do applaud your restraint in publishing a piece that you have reservations about. Sometimes, just throwing your thoughts out there when it affects someone else can be very hurtful.

    • Hi crankycaregiver,
      Great name! Thanks for your comments. I could write the piece as fiction, and I think I probably will at some point, because it’s something that has had a big impact on me. But I also want to write about it as a true story, because I think that can be more powerful–to know someone actually went through something, rather than to read it as a “what if this happened” kind of thing.

      My husband and I are actively working to get out of debt right now, and one of the big reasons we are doing this is because I actually know two people who live totally debt-free. Before I knew them, even though I’ve read a bunch of books about finances, I never really thought it was possible to pay off all my debt. Now, because I know others who have done it and have shared their stories with me, I believe it’s possible.

      Thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. I write family history stories and blog to teach others ways to do the same. I spend a lot of time addressing the “touchy subjects” in each family. But, I often wonder how I can write my own part of the story, The curves I’ve been thrown in life are substantial, sometimes sickeningly so. Holding back on my part is the only way that others in the family will trust me to share stories about those closest to them. For now, my truth has to stay locked in a drawer. Some day I will allow “my” side of the feelings…just not now.
    Writing it all as fiction? It’s all too strange and melodramatic to be believable as fiction…it’s stranger than that 🙂

    • Hi Mom,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Mark Twain says, fiction has to make sense.

      I hope, before you lock your truth in the drawer, you write it for yourself as honestly as you can so that, when the time finally comes to share it, or rework it, or whatever you want to do with it, you will have all the material that you need to work with.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful and true post. I have done the same thing with my private journal entries, working to let myself be true and creative in my personal entries. I have also deliberated the ethics about blogging about past situations and life stories that involve others and have stepped away from revealing these things out of respect for other people, even if it’s not something necessarily negative one isn’t sure what others are willing to share. In the internet age, things do come back to you, and quite quickly. What I have shared through my experiences with others I’ve changed their names.

    • Hi simplyenjoy,
      You are welcome. Thanks for your comments. I agree with everything you said. As a life coach, I blog about many past events as well as more current ones, and I always change identifying details so no one can be recognized. Unless I ask for and receive permission from someone, I never write their story without disguising them. So far, the only unfortunate soul who goes undisguised is my husband, and he is very generous about letting me blog about him.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  7. Thanks for an honest post on the difficulty of keeping our writing honest! I, too, have wondered how much truth I should write in my journals. I want to write memoir, but I fear the truth would embarrass others as well as myself. Please write about how we can keep the kernel of truth yet protect others as well as ourselves. How do we include details, which we all know is essential to great writing, yet not give away too much of ourselves or others? Thanks again for your wonderful essay.

    • Hi Lady Dancing,
      Thanks for your comments and your questions. I will address them in an upcoming blog post. In the meantime, keep writing the truth in your journals. Be as honest as you can and then lock them away if you need to. Sometimes, if you worry about others reading your journals, you just can’t write as honestly as you’d like. I remember, years ago, when my stepchildren were still at home, we had conversations about journals and about how the emotions in them were “of the moment.” I made it clear that I would never read one of their journals and asked them not to read mine. While I tried not to leave my journal lying around the house, I felt confident that it would not be read. If you don’t feel comfortable, you won’t write honestly. So hide it, lock it up, or write in code, but write the truth!

      Thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  8. I recently posted a similar sentiment on my blog. Except it was related to writing with a Christian frame of mind. I find that if not cognizant of how the words are presented I don’t present my message as intended. I too want to write authentically.

    • HI Joe,
      Thanks for your comments. Yes, we really need to be thoughtful about our words in order for them to have the impact we want them to and to protect the privacy of those around us.

      Keep writing authentically!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  9. Thank you for this honest, helpful post, Diane. I saw myself on every step. After losing some journals and thought notebooks, I began writing careful, pre-edited and sanitized entries. This post was a wonderful alternative.

    • Hi Marylin,
      When I was 11, I came home from school one day to find my mom and my older brother reading my journal and laughing. When I walked in, they told me my writing was really funny, but I wasn’t trying to be! After that, I started writing stilted entries that said nothing at all. It took me a long time to stop doing that. And, as scary as it is to think that others might read my unedited words, it’s scarier still to think that I will never really express myself–not even to myself!

      Start writing the truth again and then hide your journal between your mattress and box spring. Easily accessible but hidden. (Don’t tell anyone else, that’s my best hiding place!)

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi Julie,
      When you know who the person is, it’s hard to imagine they won’t know! Even if you change their hair, their profession, even their gender.

      It’s such a process–keep trying!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  10. Pingback: How to Succeed in Writing VII: Being Authentic versus Being Entertaining « Rilaly's Blog

  11. Words are powerful and you are right to be selective in what you press. The fact that you wrote honestly and had the compassion not to publish it in order to preserve someone else’s feelings/reputation/relationship speaks voumes about your character. Sharing life lessons can be done without hurting others. Bravo!

    • Hi authordianemhow,
      Thanks for your kind words. You put it really well: Sharing life lessons can be done without hurting others.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  12. Thank you for writing about this.I found it was honest.

    This has been a problem for me too and indeed my best pieces have been those that have bounced against my boundaries. But, we still need boundaries, especially if client confidentiality is involved.

    Perhaps you could fictionalize the incident. It might even be more powerful then.

    • Hi Audrey,
      Thanks for your comments and your advice. I think I will definitely fictionalize the events I wrote about in the blog post–writing it out made me realize what a big impact it all had on me and my life. Fictionalizing it would allow me to play around with all the “what ifs” that my mind had already come up with.

      Thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  13. I can identify all the way with you. I thought I was selfish not wanting to share my intimacy with others. My soul is mine only to cherish! Having said that I thank you for your honesty! I live so much emotion everyday but keep it all to myself and there is a risk of my blog become just another blog…oh well…

    • HI goodatrek,
      Thanks for your comments. The trick is to keep at least some of the emotion without sharing the intimate details of your life that belong only to you and those around you. Our stories, while personal, are also universal, and if you write authentically (without oversharing), others will respond to your words.

      Best wishes with your blog!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  14. Miguel Ruiz’s first agreement in the book, “The Four Agreements” is this, “Be impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
    Written or spoken, words are powerful and thoughtfully written words from the heart is the way to touch and move others. Wonderful post.

    • Hi Epicurean Eva,
      Thanks for your comments and thanks for reminding me of The Four
      Agreements–I haven’t read it in a long time, but I totally agree with the words you quoted. I’m really trying to “use the power of [my] word in the direction of truth and love.” Truth and love, what else is there?

      Thank you.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  15. Thank you for your post. I too, have definitely written sanitized versions of everything in my journals, once I figured out that they could actually be picked up and read. My high school and college journals were definitely more authentic! I need to work on getting back to just a good level of honesty in the journals so I can remember the emotions when I want to use those entries.

    • Hi Heather,
      Exactly! If you don’t write authentically in the moment, or even after the fact, the emotion of whatever happens will be gone when you try to capture it by reading only what happened. In the past, I’ve thought–oh, I’ll remember how I felt–but I don’t always. So now I let it all hang out (at least in my journals 🙂 )

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi hillarysangel,
      I might, one of these days. It definitely wasn’t something I could ask in an email, but if I wrote something that I was proud of I could take it to the other person and see what the response is.

      Thanks for your question and thanks for reading.

      Warmly,
      Diane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s