When I was in grad school, my mentor, David L. Ulin, talked a lot about how much he appreciated honesty in writing. We were reading Paul Theroux‘s My Other Life, and David was pointing out the bald honesty of the passage where the narrator realizes his inherent racism as he stands the only white man in a crowd of black people.
I began, then, to look for honesty in the books I read. I look for those places where, no matter how painful or embarassing it might be, the writer is absolutely honest about what he/she feels. This honesty is not that awful thing that people refer to when they say things like “Well it was true so it just hard to be said.” That is honesty as attack. In good writing, honesty is simple true; while it may be pointed or double-edged, the blade of the truth is never pointed at any one, except perhaps the writer/narrator him/herself. This isn’t about getting our way when we write; it’s about getting down the deepest, most complex parts of the story, the parts we usually gloss over because they hurt or because, often, we don’t even know they are there.
I try to teach this to my students. I urge them to “go deep” and really see what is there in the stories they are telling. I push them to see themselves as complex beings who may not, yet, know all there is to know about their lives or who they are as people. Often my students are young, and so this is harder. Youth comes with a glossy health to it that often masks the deepest truths of ourselves, as if our souls have been airbrushed. But sometimes, they speak the honesty so brightly, so perfectly that I lose my breath when I read their work. These are the moments I live for.
And of course, this is the honesty I try to live each day with my words and my actions. Perhaps this is the greatest thing that writing has given my life – the knowledge that knowing and then speaking truth, even when painful, brings freedom. As John 8:32 says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” This honesty does not come without suffering or without loss. Sometimes this honesty causes us to lose all kind of things – our delusions, our protective coverings, even, occasionally, people – but even in these heart-breaking losses, we are still free. We have found ourselves, and there is blessed freedom in this.
So how do you find the truth of yourselves? What brings you to honesty on the page? In life? What have you learned of honesty in your years on this broken planet?