“Everyone take out a piece of paper. On that piece of paper, write the one thing
that would destroy your life, as you know it. Confess something that would change the
course of your life. Address this confession to the person it would impact the most. It
might be your spouse, your child, your parent, your boss. Write down something that,
if the person to whom you have addressed the letter actually reads it, will cause them
to no longer trust you, to hate you. Some secret they don’t know. Something you’ve
hidden.”

There was a wave of nervous mumbling from the students. A few brave souls
jumped right in, but most of us were more reluctant, pens were poised, mid-air.
“We have a lot to cover in this lecture, so you really should be writing,” the instructor
said.

A few more pens to the page.
“No one is exempt, here. Everyone write.”
Everyone wrote.

Even as I put my own hand into motion, I was reminded of a song lyric:
Everybody’s got a secret they’ve been sitting on,
The candid among you says theirs feels like an atom bomb.

After a few minutes of writing, the teacher upped the ante: “Fold the paper twice, so
it could fit in an envelope.”
The commotion of folding. The nervous laughter returns.
“Now, address the outside to the person you wouldn’t want to read it. Name.
Address. City. Zip. All of it. Make it ready to mail.”
The mumblings turn to groans.
“Now, pass them forward.”
Silence.
“Come on. Don’t be a wimp. Pass it up.”
We passed the letters forward.

There are two lessons here.
First, you have to be a well-loved teacher to attempt a stunt like this. This teacher
was a student favorite. Tough, yet sincere. Crass, but funny. He brought in the heavy
guns when he gave your story a critique, but in the end, your writing was better for it.
We enjoyed his lectures, sought him out in the cafeteria or at the hotel bar, listened
intently when he was doing the faculty reading. His opinion of our work mattered.

The more pertinent lesson–the one he was trying to teach us–was about writing in a
way that is too comfortable, too easy.

He gathered all the letters into a pile and put them in his briefcase. “At the end of this
week, when you leave here, what will happen if this letter beats you home? How many
of you would have your lives changed instantly, if the person you’ve addressed the letter
to finds it in the mail, opens it, and reads it?”
Hands went up all over the lecture hall.
“For your writing to be powerful, you should be writing about things that have the
potential to ruin your lives. For your work to be authentic, you should have some level
of fear that you are revealing too much, that people won’t understand you, that they will
look at you differently after they read it.”

As a fiction writer I approach my writing with the following recipe:
• A pinch of what’s real
• A dash of past experience
• A hint of what might have been
• A twist of what should have been
• A heaping helping of made up stuff to protect the innocent, and myself.

I know I have, at times, shied away from a scene or a character, a thought or an
action; I allowed myself to think about what my family, my friends, my co-workers,
church buddies, or in-laws might think. It is that sort of self-censorship that this letter-
writing exercise caused me to consider. It is that sort of self-censoring that causes a
story to go flat, leads to a one-dimensional character, or fractures an otherwise well-
developed theme.

Being true to the writing despite the consequences–whether in fiction, non-fiction, or
poetry–is the fundamental calling of the writing life. It isn’t always pretty, but sometimes
we just have to go where the story takes us.

Eric Sheridan Wyatt is a writer and educator who lives in Bradenton, Florida. He received a B.S. in Education from Ball State University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His short fiction has appeared in Eunoia Review, Epiphany Mag, Ozone Park Journal, and The First Line, among others. His writing was also featured in the non-fiction anthology, Can My Marriage Be Saved?

Eric has written hundreds of articles, twice as many blog posts, and text for national marketing ads, state-wide direct mail and newspaper ads, flyers and brochures. (Not to mention radio and TV spots, as well as employee manuals and training guides.) His blog, Stories I Read, Stories I Tell, is updated several times each week.

In May of 2012, Eric will be a writer in residence at the Brush Creek Foundation, in Wyoming. Find out more online at: www.WordsMatterESW.com and @WordsMatterESW on Twitter.