13 April 2009

A Clarification of 'Honesty'

I mentioned last week that I think 'honesty' is an important quality of a great writer. I need to respond to the comments (sorry!), but something struck me as I was reading them: by honesty, I don't mean 'pouring out your heart', or 'wearing your heart on your sleeve', or anything like that. I don't mean pouring out the tragedies of your life, or trying to impress the reader.

In fact, I mean just the opposite. I mean 'honesty' in the sense my husband uses it when he talks about 'honest architecture' (ya, he's an architect). It means architecture without pretension, architure that embraces what it is and doesn't try to pretend to be something different, something more, or even something less. It's understated when it needs to be, it's loud if it has to be, but above all else, it's... honest. It comes from a place of integrity, without the need to impress - unless its entire point is to impress. It's something that holds true to its intent, embraces functionality as well as fancy-prettiness, and creates something that rings true.

I hope you can see how that applies to writing. It's not about wearing your emotions on your sleeve, or pouring in the smush to tug at readers' heartstrings. It's about being honest about what you're doing; it's about knowing what you're doing and why; it's about being real.

It's the exact opposite of my first short stories, which in an attempt to be 'interesting' were melodramatic and overwritten - because they weren't coming from me, from my experiences. They didn't ring true, because they weren't. I didn't have the maturity or life experiences to write about the subjects I chose - and frankly, it showed.

This is what people mean when they tell you, 'Write what you know'. It isn't about writing only in the here-and-now, because that's all you've experienced; it isn't about never writing about a married character if you're single, or only writing about your own gender, or never writing fantasy and science fiction (heaven forbid!!!); it's about letting your experiences form the basis of what you write, of writing from your own pain, your own suffering, extrapolating from things you've actually felt and translating them into similar situations, even if the characters are inhuman or the setting isn't Earth.

It's what you know, stretched further, deeper, broader, applied to the whole range of human experience. It's about knowing which bits of what you've experienced are part of the human condition, which bits resonate; it's about making sure your work rings true.

With this definition of honesty, what do you think? Do we need it?


Windsong said...

Very insightful. WHen an author gets this honest in a story, I connect better. It adds layers of meaning that my analytical brain likes to know is there so it can pick apart later.

Windsong said...

Urk. Sorry about second post, but what if your voice comes across as melodramatic, etc. to some? If you're not writing things to sound over the top on purpose, because that's just how you think?

beth said...

Totally agree with you. It's the difference between believable fiction and drivel, IMO.

Lady Glamis said...

Oh, wow wow wow! I LOVE this post! FINALLY, somebody nails down a meaning of "write what you know." I may just have to put up a post about his, Inky One.

Eric said...

Yep, this is really good and accurate information. I'm struggling with this right now, because my WIP is about something I have never experienced. Its taken alot of research and thought on my part to not let it get too fanciful or ridiculous.

Anette J Kres said...

Agreed, Inky. Agreed

Great post.

Yunaleska said...

Wow. Awesome post. And yes, this is true for my very first wip. Now, unfortunately in a lot of cases, I have a great deal of experience to write my stories. Not all, but enough that I think its helping.Thank you for this.

Inkblot said...

Windsong - Yes, the layers of meaning is what I love too - and I'm hoping to be able to write like that! As for your voice sounding melodramatic... I guess that's where good crit partners come in, people who understand that that's your voice, but can work with you to shape it into something that's also able to sell.

Beth - precisely.

Glam - feel free! One day, I'll do a post in my 'writerly advice' series on this; I've only been meaning to for about nine months... O:)

Eric - you're ahead of the game, though, because you recognise the need for quality research. Good on you :)

Anette - thank you. *hugs*

Yuna - you're welcome. And that's the great thing about writing - even the crappy experiences in life can be put to good use!

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