Writing represents carefully directed thought, the fruit of hours of reflection, of searching for the most exact language to convey the veracity of an experience or the complexity of an idea. If your thinking is half-baked or insincere, you may not even realize it until you’ve begun writing it down. Seeing our thoughts exposed on the naked page or screen in stark letters helps us to discern their authenticity more readily. Often transcribed in haste, our thoughts suddenly stand still for us, poised for scrutiny, as if posing for a photograph. Did you really mean what you just wrote about the way your mother treated you when you were nine? Is that description of your Aunt Mildred’s obsession with cleanliness accurate? Did that Halloween prank take place exactly the way you said it did? Fiction writers also must tend scrupulously to honesty and authenticity, or else their characters or the story they are unfolding will not seem genuine. The discipline of writing, as John Steinbeck asserted, punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. In a very real sense, then, writing is one of the most ethical activities we can engage in.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
Think about the way you talk about your life to others. Do you “stretch the truth” a bit, as Mark Twain would say? Do you leave out certain negative details or replace them with more positive ones? More importantly, does this tendency transfer to your memoir writing as well? If so, you may want to set some authenticity ground rules for yourself before embarking on your next writing project, or revising an existing one.
Pull out a draft of one of your unpublished or unfinished short stories or essays or poems and begin writing a critical evaluation of its authenticity. Question every detail, every assertion, either in your own voice or that of a persona. Offer yourself suggestions for revision. Get feedback from a friend or family member. Wait a couple of days, and then revise the piece, incorporating this feedback if warranted.