This advice became a frequent theme at the Business of Writing – Success workshop last Saturday. Several presenters encouraged writers to be ourselves—even if we’re boring! Such advice is very appealing. After all, many of us became writers in order to express ourselves.
But being authentic carries risks. What if no one likes you? What if you don’t like yourself?
These questions keep resurfacing as I sit in a restaurant, chowing down on breakfast, and listening to old tunes piped through the intercom. Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” played earlier. If you know the song, you know how it begins:
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, JackI went out for a ride and I never went back
In a sense, Springsteen glorifies a man who abandoned his family. Yet the song was a hit precisely because it exposes an authentic feeling we all share: the hungry heart that can never be satisfied, not even by the traditional avenues of love and marriage. Being authentic means being real, which means admitting we’re not perfect. We’ve let ourselves and others down, and our hearts are still hungry.
But being authentic can be dangerous. Just look at the state of U.S. politics these days.
Probably the most authentic public statement made this year was uttered by a Missouri politician. He asserted that women who are raped have a way of "shutting down" their bodies to prevent pregnancy. The assumptions and rationale behind the statement appear to be as follows: If a woman gets pregnant from rape, she must have wanted to be raped. Therefore, rape is not a valid reason for abortion.
To be clear, this was a reprehensible statement from someone who was a) ignorant of biology, b) trying to justify a black-and-white view of abortion, or c) both.
But was it an authentic statement? Almost certainly. It's hard to imagine anyone—much less a candidate for the U.S. Senate—saying it without believing it. The fact that he stuck to his guns and refused to withdraw from the race amid criticism from his own party supports the theory that he was being authentic. (He lost the election, by the way.)
It’s easy to pillory someone who makes outlandish and ignorant claims. Yet should we not admire him just a little for being so honest, so . . . authentic?
Well, no. Peddling stupidity is never to be admired.
And yet, as writers, we can be just as ignorant at times. We create fictional characters to dress up our own notions of how the world should be or how we think it really is, and those notions can be built upon any number of false assumptions, painful experiences, and comfort zone observations.
In being authentic, we risk exposing those notions—those cherished aspects of ourselves—to painful criticism. Worse, being authentic means looking in a mirror and judging what we see.
The tightrope of authenticity becomes even thinner when one writes for children and young adults. Certain subjects are considered very risky when writing for a young audience. By mentioning rape and abortion, for example, have I crossed the line?
I don't think so. The kids who will be reading The Power Club™ live in the same world in which politicians make controversial statements and in which their parents and other adults in their lives choose sides, debate, and sometimes divide over such issues. Kids are not stupid. They can see what's going on in the world and form their own opinions. They can see that there really is no wall between the fictional worlds we create and the real world we seek to understand. Each realm mirrors and informs the other.
Which brings us back to being authentic. If you are authentic, you reveal who you really are in your stories—warts and all. You risk being criticized for your warts, both by those who want to help you remove them and those who want to feel better about their own warts by making you feel bad about yours. You risk appearing stupid, hateful, ignorant and foolish because, let’s face it, you are all of these things some of the time.
But you also recognize the good in you—and in others. And that some risks are worth taking.
How do you manage authenticity in your writing?