Today a friend asked me how, in photographs, I was willing to reveal parts of my life that many consider too private to share: my office, our bedroom, our personal world. I hadn’t even thought about it until she asked. I had been entirely focused on the picture and the light. For me, it was a visual challenge; whether or not it was intimate never entered my mind.
But that got me to thinking. The willingness to stand naked in front of strangers, in front of the whole world, is at the core of being an artist. If you can’t let the world see you, warts and all, you won’t create things that feel “true” in the deepest sense of the word.
Once upon a time, I was young and trying to write fiction. Although I was good at many kinds of writing, my fiction was always flat. I never understood exactly what was wrong with it, but I knew it wasn’t good. Nonetheless, I persisted in endlessly submitting material to editors in hopes that someone would like one of my stories enough to publish it.
One day, an editor took the time to tell me what she felt was the problem with my writing.
“You write,” she said, “As if you are afraid your mother is going to read it.”
Talk about stunned. She had hit the nail on the head. I really was afraid my mother would read it. Literally. Moreover, I was afraid I’d tell a truth that would hurt someone’s feelings or reveal something intimate about myself that I didn’t want known. Despite knowing my fear of emotionally exposing myself was blocking my ability to write the way I wanted to, I couldn’t change. Only after my mother and brother had passed did I finally write something truly honest.
When people tell you to write about what you know, they don’t merely mean that you should write about places and things that are familiar. They mean that you should draw on your own life, your own experiences and feelings, because from that well will come your best work.
I never wrote a great novel and I never will. It turns out that you need more than a knack for words and dialogue to write fiction. You also need the ability to develop a plot and characters, an ability I lack. I do know that every good piece of work I’ve done, whether a photograph or writing, sprang from genuine passion. You can’t fake it. You’ve got to feel it.
- Everything Is Fiction (newyorker.com)
- Writing For Money (thewearywriter.com)
- Book Review: The Novelist (adifferentstory.net)