We’ve talked about being honest to oneself, whether in writing or while editing. And we’ve addressed finding courage and being honest with others about our stories. We’ve also talked about “splitting open” as Natalie Goldberg says in her book “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within”.
But what does it mean to be honest to oneself and other people? What does it mean to tell it like it is?
The answers might mean something different for each of us. But are there commonalities?
This is what I have discovered, and which also surprised me immensely. This surprised me because the realizations, I had in the process, were new to me and also because, at the same time, they made so much sense.
Honesty and kindness are mutually inclusive and are cannot be true without one another.
I thought a long time erroneously that being kind to myself meant to claim time and space for myself from others. Aspiring writers hear often, “Protect your writing time.” It sounds like somebody is attacking our writing time, or is eager to steal it. Yes, sure we get interrupted, but the same happens in every other job. And there we simply try to go back to the task we were before interruption. Or we do ask others not to disturb us for some time. But this claim to have time is not uttered with as many complaints as it is uttered in relation to writing. At least, I have never heard of interruptions more often or with a more negative tone than since I became a writer.
For me the brightest light-bulb in this respect shone on an evening when I complained to my husband about my lack of time for writing. “Other authors take one hour or more in the evenings to write or even go to writers’ retreats solely with the purpose to write their books. I also want this! Even if it is just for five minutes every day.”
His answer was short and couldn’t have been more honest, direct, and fair. He said, “So go to your desk, close the door behind you and write.”
I was speechless. All I could do in response was go to our little office, close the door, put the timer for five minutes and write.
I managed to write three short paragraphs during those five minutes. I did edit them heavily later, but the easiness with which they’d flown struck me. I realized that the whole heaviness of the task didn’t come from the lack of time to write but from the drama I have created around taking this time. This drama had not contained even an ounce either of kindness or honesty, neither to those around me nor to myself.
As I observed myself testing honesty and kindness to myself and others and tried to apply them separately from each other, I realized that they simply stop existing without each other.
As I tried being kind to myself without seeing that I was the one hindering myself to do what I wanted to and instead putting the blame on others, I stopped being kind all together. Blaming others in my inability to take time for my writing didn’t buy me a ticket to feeling good as I thought it would. I thought that by putting the responsibility for this on the others would relieve the guilt I felt inside.
After this hadn’t worked out, I decided to blame myself instead, and expose my “mistakes” (almost) publicly. This was my idea of being honest. But soon after, I felt miserable and started whining and asking people around me for mercy. To my surprise, many did have compassion and understanding. The one, who hadn’t and happened not being able to see the truth, was me.
Understanding that honesty and kindness cannot fully bloom without each other was a big relief. There was suddenly both calmness and time to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t have neither beat nor lie to myself. All there was to do was to become aware that I was in discomfort and then make a choice what to do next without trying to fix myself or anything. All there was to do is to move forward. And people around me seemed not only to accept but also understand me more than they ever did before.
Ignorance is a way of saying no and being dishonest and unkind.
Have you noticed that when you tried to ignore someone or something, these people, things, events and memories of them seem to stick around? I recently experienced that at the first parents’ meeting at my son’s school.
I was very much looking forward to this event. From two reasons. First, I had never been at a parents’ and teachers’ meeting at a school before, and as a kid I always wondered, what was happening there. All the accounts by my parents and movies displaying many kinds of possible and impossible scenarios of such events couldn’t replace the wish to experience them myself. The parents’ evenings in the kindergarten neither. It had to be a first-hand experience at a school.
The second reason was that I was really curious how this is happening nowadays and especially in the country so different from the one I grew up in.
So even the planned two and a half hour duration couldn’t stop my merry anticipation of the event. I volunteered to go and was very curious about it.
When I arrived, I saw many other parents gathering. Some of them had also older children in that school and knew the teachers and each other. Other were as new as I was.
I noticed that some of the parents seemed not to be that keen of being there. Or at least they weren’t that merry or smiling. Well, we all have our stories and fights, we fight inside us. So, who knows why they aren’t smiling, I thought.
I decided to ignore them and concentrate on my positive anticipation, no matter who was smiling or not, no matter how many prejudices I heard of parents’ evenings, especially the long ones. And I’ve been told two and a half hours for a parents’ meeting were way too long!
I waited for the meeting to being, watched the teachers, trying to ignore other parents.
At some point I noticed that I wasn’t smiling anymore, that I had a frown above my eyes and worrying thoughts filled my mind. What if Niklas had done something wrong and they would tell this today? In front of all other parents!? What if he was not coping with school that well? What if the way we were upbringing him at home was wrong?
These thoughts were there although I have experienced my son completely differently since he started school. His posture changed, his attitude also. He’s helping more and more at home, became more calm and positively thoughtful. He loves speaking of what he learned at school, looks forward for the next day and asked to let him stay longer at school after school hours.
So why was I having those thoughts?
I didn’t manage to answer that question in my head, because I suddenly let myself observe the way those worrisome thoughts made me feel.
This is when it dawned on me. This is how those frowning parents felt! They might not had had the same thoughts as I did, but those tightening arms of worry were squeezing them most probably in the same way they squeezed me. Fear or at least anxiety of what might come out of this meeting.
As I embraced this observation instead of ignoring and rejecting it, I found my frown disappearing and I started smiling again. But with a different kind of smile than before.
Besides I found myself looking into other parents’ eyes. And … they smiled back at me.
That was an amazing discovery and there and then I understood that the same applied to all areas of my life, including writing.
When I tried to ignore the idea of writing a book, the thoughts of it and especially a specific story, that of my father, kept coming back. This battle inside my head was anything but pleasant. Everything changed as soon as I surrendered and embraced the idea of putting my father’s story into words.
Now I practice to embrace what comes my way more often and often. And I can’t stop being surprised and awed how reach the experiences are.
Ignorance does not protect us of something unwanted. Disregarding other people and events will never help because we are never isolated, even when we feel lonely.
There are of course people, actions and events, who and which deserve sometimes being said No to or ignored. These are anyone or anything biased towards aggression. Because attackers and aggressors gain their energy and power from attention.
But if anyone or anything stirs something up inside us, then ignorance to how we and others feel will only hurt us and make us more vulnerable. Just like in traffic, ignoring a traffic sign can be fatal, ignoring a feeling generated by interacting with the world around us can make our lives poorer and more isolated.
As I learned from Ariel and Shya Kane and their approach of instantaneous transformation, awareness and being in the moment, the least painful and most enjoyable way to live life is to allow ourselves and others be they way we all are in any given moment, be present with mind and body in this given moment and see what is there to do without ignorance, judgment (acknowledging that ignorance is a form of judgment), evaluation, or any other bias.
You don’t have to explain too much to come to the point. Fear has the tendency to bend the truth.
Here comes our old friend fear again. Have you noticed that sometimes when you want to say something, you try to wrap it up into a long introduction as if it was a fragile antique book or vase, you needed to handle it with special gloves.
We often forget that truth is solid and sharp, like a knife. Wrapping up hides what it is about. I observed that often when I try to prepare my listener for the truth with a long introduction, I lose him or her. And when my point comes, they don’t get it. Then I get an impression that they disagree or reject me. Only after a long clarification we find out that we were of the same opinion or that what I wanted to say resonated with them.
Of course, we need to be attentive to the way we present our truth to others, so that it doesn’t offend them. But we don’t have to wrap it up in something thick and heavy for someone to get it. If we do it, then they will probably go by without noticing anything.
Let’s go back to the analogy of a knife. If somebody asks you to pass them a knife, you will take care that the sharp side doesn’t face their hand when they take it. At the same time I am sure that you won’t be packing the knife into a thick roll of paper, or those plastic wrappings with thousands of the tiny air-bags before giving the knife further.
Also in fiction and while showing, “telling like it is” is the best path to take.
“Well,” you might ask, “this all good and well for non-fiction, but aren’t you supposed to imagine and fake things in fiction?”
Imagine — Yes. Fake — No.
But even the word imagination might not quite express the way the truth is said in fiction.
I see imagination like a transmission device and a door opener. We think, for example, “Let’s imagine, I’m on the moon, or in the Oval Office, or with Alice in the Wonderland”. Imagination brings us there. But then what we learned so far and the magic motor of our brain work together and we see the fiction, which ceases to be one, clearly.
Dreams come in pictures, including the most vivid ones, living us wondering whether we are awake or fell asleep as we open our eyes.
And I do believe that the true fiction comes in surreal but vivid images. We look somewhere behind the desk and computer screen, we are working at, and see our characters, and the scenes they are involved it. Then we try to capture what we see in words.
But if you take your inner eyes off the scene and try to claim something is happening without actually witnessing or feeling it, then you are faking it and the reader will know.
The first time I experienced this was when I was trying to figure out what could have made my father, being the protagonist of my first novel, “The Truth About Family”, become in one scene oblivious of a person bullying him for many years.
And so I imagined or rather turned to peer inside the headmaster’s office, made all characters freeze and entered the room. I realized that my father was looking at something, tried to find the spot he was looking at, and then I saw it. A letter he waited for so long and which he hoped to bring him the news about his long lost family.
I could clearly see that letter, in thin, yellowish envelope with address scribbled in spiky letters and black ink. The recipient’s name was that of my father.
This description of the letter never found its way into the book, but seeing it helped me to describe my father’s feelings upon discovering his name on the envelope and that the sender was the one he hoped to be.
The initial attempts to describe the scene, before I entered the room made me speculate that my father might have been ignoring the bully by will and trying to concentrate on the headmaster. But all this felt strange and wasn’t working. It was like I was recounting the story as said to me by a third person, who had never been there.
Entering and seeing the room opened a completely new possibility and helped me feel what authenticity means when writing fiction. No one can see a scene as I see it. Another person would see it with different eyes. And this — very personal to me — seeing is what makes what I write original and true.
There are many perfect ways to tell it like it is. The experience of how perfect they feel can change with time and with what we learn.
So now we know what to look for when telling it like it is. Whatever it is, we know exactly how to tell it. There is only one way of doing it. Right?
Yes and No.
No, because you can write the same story, the same sentence, in various ways or from various points of view. Frustratingly, or maybe not so, they all have the ability to be true.
Even for the same person but in various moments and situations the truth can be different.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love”, wrote the following about a 10-pages-long short story, which she had to rewrite because she had to shorten it with 30%:
“The new version was neither better nor worse than the old version; it was just profoundly different.” Elizabeth Gilbert, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”
And I am sure both versions felt true to her in the moments they were created and polished.
So this was about the No.
But the answer is also a Yes. Because there is only one choice in any given moment. We usually choose the one that feels better, or feels right, as we say. This choice becomes our truth.
Other people might not believe that we mean what we say. But their belief or trust in us doesn’t always or not only have to do with us and what we say.
If we tell the truth and bring our authentic selves in what we write, why then some people don’t believe us? Why do they frown at what we write or what we say? Can in be that we didn’t say the truth even if in that moment, when the words were born, we were sure of their authenticity?
One of the reasons of my fear to write a book or write and share my writing in general was the fear of other people not only not liking it, but most of all I was afraid of being criticized and told that what I do is not correct, not right, not true. That it was all wrong. Even if I gave all of me and did the very best I could.
Why didn’t then some people appreciate it, especially when I needed that appreciation the most?
Well, the answer was both revealing and surprising. People who criticize without any constructive ideas are worried too. Their critique has often little to do with me. It often reflects their worries and fears, their struggle. It can also mean that what I have created has stirred something inside them, made them confused and uncomfortable.
Having heard sayings as “The path to enlightenment goes through confusion” or “If you want to meet your true self then you need to step out of your comfort zone” doesn’t save us from upsets and negative reactions towards what touched that sensitive string in us.
When I experienced this new to me realization to why some people are so offensive in their critique, I genuinely calmed down. Understanding that these people are just as vulnerable as I am, and that they too are utterly scared of being offensively critiqued without any appreciation of their effort, just as I am also scared at times, helped me relax and stop judging them.
Some words of conclusion about Telling It Like It Is.
I thought this article would be short. But it ended up being one of longest in this book. Maybe because the meaning of telling the truth is paradoxical. It is both absolute and indefinite. Absolute and precise for one person, in his or her circumstance at one particular moment, different for other people and circumstances, and varying over time. And even if our truth is not absolute over time, it does feel absolute and lasting if we don’t take other person’s reactions to it personally, if we just utter it and let it go, and if we just come back to the current moment to find the truth of right here and right now.
Picture: This is what I see when I turn to look at the all behind me in my little office at home. The feather-pen is a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law; the little reproduction of a girl from Las Meninas by Diego Velasquez was given to me for speaking at the S1000D User Forum in Seville last week; and the little reminder with truth about what happiness means was a little gift for myself I found last month in a gift shop.
“Cheerleading For Writers”, copyright © 2016 by Victoria Ichizli-Bartels