Rules of Writing: Tell the Truth About You

[Art by Jeremy Grant]

I am a type 3 on the Enneagram. Some people call like to call us type threes the “performers” or “achievers.” I like to say, we get shit done, and we look good doing it.

The dark side to this achievement is an underlying desire for everyone around us to admire us. I like to be liked – but it’s more than that. I NEED to be liked. I LONG for others to look up to me. When I first realized my enneagram type, I cried because I felt so naked recognizing the ugliness of my own heart. How could I be that person?

But I believe that in our bones, we all hold immeasurable good and evil. We found charitable organizations; we peak mountains; we invent new technologies; we craft precise sentences. We also connive, deceive, and manipulate for our selfish ends.

That is me; that is also you.

I do not tell you this to shock you or to reform you. I believe this to be an indelible fact of existence. And it matters to your work as a writer (…and, by the way, as a person).

I learned early on as a nonfiction writer that insincerity stinks and the stench spoils the work. If I try to impress you in my writing, my writing fails, and certainly I fail at impressing you. But if I tell the nuanced truth – the ugly with the beautiful – then I let you into my humanity and give you a glimpse at yours back.

Case in point: my #fallinginlovestory. Coming into this work, I wanted to tell the good parts of the story. I wanted to describe in detail the moment when my boyfriend (now husband) first told me he loved me. I wanted to tell you about how loving I was toward the friend who Jeremy had fallen for before I was ever in the picture. I wanted to tell you how full of faith I was throughout the process, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that God would come through for me.

But guess what? The more I did my research – rereading old journals, resurrecting old email accounts (whose passwords needed to be recovered), discussing events with friends – the more I realized that the ugly parts of the story, parts where I say or do stupid or selfish things, those were the gems of the story. (And believe me, there are SO MANY MORE of those moments than the sparkly ones.)

In writing as in life, conflict moves us forward. That’s how transformation happens, if it ever does. I began to recognize that the parts where I act needy and self-conscious and self-absorbed and obsessive are the parts that mirror the human condition most truthfully, and so those exact scenes are the ones that make the reader feel something. Because who among us can admit to being fully selfless and kind? (Hint: not you). You can relate to my many, many failures. That’s where we live most of the time. And that’s what gives a narrative its peaks. Without the lows, you’ll never get to the highs.

The other reality is, if you want to be able to earn the trust of your reader when you talk about the nuances of other characters (read: the bad and good of other people), you better be willing to shine that same attention onto yourself.

Knowing it’s the best route doesn’t make it any easier on us as authors: taking off your clothes is not sexy like the movies. (Those jiggly parts truly are unsightly). You might lose some friends. But the truth can bowl us over like a train in a way that a constructed false self never can. So you can expect me to strip down and tell you the truth, because it’s better than fiction.

About Liz Grant

Published author. Married to an artist. Two kids. Lives in a brick house in Denver, Colorado. Follower of Jesus. Find me on Instagram @elizcharlottegrant.

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