Writers, Are You Ready?

Every time I teach a creative nonfiction writing class to undergraduates, I spend part of the first day giving them my “are you ready?” speech.  It goes something like this:

Writing is hard. It requires you to look more closely at things, maybe even your own life, than you ever have before. It asks that you look and not look away, even when it hurts. Even when you see or remember things you don’t want to see or remember.

So in this class, you are free to write about any subject you’d like – nature, dating, travel, the injustices of college, your own experiences – but if you choose to do so, you have to look at those things with a steady, eyes-wide-open gaze.  You can’t see only what you want if you are going to write about it. You have to see it all.

And if you want to write about something and turn it in for critique, you have to be ready for critique. You have to be ready for your classmates and I to talk about HOW you wrote about this subject, and while we will do our best to stick to the HOW and not the WHAT, it can be hard to separate those things in our writers’ minds and hearts.  Very hard.  So before you turn something in, be sure you are ready to hear it taken apart a little.

Finally, as much as writing is therapeutic and can help bring healing to your life, it is not the same as therapy, and I am not a therapist. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I’m a human. I can tell you when something doesn’t work in terms of the story you are trying to tell, but I cannot tell you how to deal with what you learn about human trafficking or how to cope with the feelings you experience when you delve back into a trauma you experience. I can listen. I can let you cry – and crying is always okay in this class – but I cannot help you heal, and I cannot let you carry your anger or your hurt too big into this class. We – your classmates and I – cannot do our jobs as your classmates and teacher if your emotions push out in front of – rather than being artfully conveyed in – your writing itself.

So ask yourself – are you ready to write about this? Are you ready to see this with open eyes and not look away? Are you ready to have the way you write about this analyzed and critiqued for its strengths and weaknesses? Are you ready to lay all your emotion into words and then put it aside when we discuss your work?

If not, it’s okay. Just journal about this thing. Spend time with it on your own. Talk to a therapist about it. Cry out your pain or frustration or anger to the people in your life who have offered to share that with you. But please, don’t write about it and turn it in for class.

Your classmates and I don’t want to hurt you further.

As I’ve come to teach outside of the classroom more, as I’ve started to coach writers, I find this advice applies to any writing we put out in the world. Can writing help us find healing? Oh yes. Can it help us understand ourselves and our experiences more deeply and with new eyes? Oh yes. Can it heal us? No. God, time, friends, prayer, long walks, and times when we sob and scream – those heal.

So when we put things out into the world, we have to be ready. We have to be ready to write with our eyes wide open, to see all that there is to see. We have to be ready to hear critique of HOW we have written and – because life does not fit the rules of classroom – probably WHAT we have written (as painful as that may be.) We have to be ready to share it with all the openness we can muster and put back our emotions because if what we have written is worth sharing, the world cannot be blown over by our pain or our defensiveness or our anger. We need them to be blown over by our words.

So writers, are you ready? If so, then, let’s do this.  If not, then journal it out. The time will come when you are ready, and we’ll be waiting. 

  • http://KatieAxelson.com Katie Axelson

    “You can’t see only what you want if you are going to write about it. You have to see it all.”

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Ouch because it’s true? Or ouch because you disagree, Katie?

      • http://KatieAxelson.com Katie Axelson

        Ouch because it’s true–definitely

  • http://jcpiech.blogspot.co.uk JC Piech

    Wow, excellent advice. This is the best blog post I’ve read on writing for quite a while.
    In the past I’ve tried to write about things as a substitute for dealing with them properly, and it’s incredibly painful to then have that work critiqued.
    You’re also spot on about having to ‘see it all’. I’ve read so much fiction (and written some) where the writer is submerged in their own emotional perspective, and it rarely makes for good reading.
    Thanks for sharing your advice :)

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com jennifer

    No. Writing cannot heal us. But finding the courage to write the hard thing can begin it. These are all true, hard and true.

  • http://snapshotofthewhole.wordpress.com Pamela Williamson

    I have to agree with JC Piech, this is excellent advice. I need to print this out and tape it by my computer. A great reminder, a printed pep-talk to use to make sure I’m ready to send in, hand out, or read my work out loud for advice and feedback. Wish I had this several months ago when I took a deep breath, took a segment of my memoir and wrote it as a short fiction piece and had it critiqued. I didn’t reveal that it was based on truth. There was no intentional deceit on my part, just stretching myself to see how the piece would be received as a short story. There were no complaints with my writing , they loved my descriptions and found the story intriguing….but they did not hold back about their dislike for the little girl, the protagonist, nor did they think the little girl in my story would behave in such a way and that it therefore rang unbelievable and untrue. That was not what I had expected. It was a tough pill to swallow and my first one ever, because they didn’t judge the story, they judged me, albeit unknowingly. For that little girl is me. It was a learning experience, hard one for sure, but it taught me to put all feelings aside when I decide to share my work. Thank you for sharing this.

  • http://lauramchaleholland.com Laura McHale Holland

    I agree with JC, too: “This is the best blog post I’ve read on writing for quite a while.” I’ve been dissatisfied with drafts of a memoir that’s a sequel to a childhood memoir I published in 2011 that has been well received by readers. Before writing my first memoir, I’d done years’ worth of emotional work to heal from childhood traumas. Reading this post made me think that part of the problem with the second memoir is that I probably need to do more healing about the particular part of my life the second memoir covers before I can write something worth putting out into the world. So thanks for this post!

  • http://www.colleenfriesen.com/blog Colleen Friesen

    Excellent advice. I’m sharing this on my FB Page. Succinct and so, so true. Thank you!