Thursday, August 2, 2012

Writing Authentically Etc. Etc. (plus video!)

"All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." --Ernest Hemingway

What’s the relationship between “true” and “authentic?” Maybe Papa Hemingway secretly felt that he never wrote a true sentence, that his life was a lie, so the shotgun beckoned. Maybe.

“True” is too high a standard. “The truest sentence you know” is much kinder, more forgiving, because a writer’s truth is relative and ever-changing. I’m not precisely the same today as I was yesterday, and I’m an entirely different person this year than I was twenty years ago.

If I want to write “authentically,” what else can I do but write the truest sentence I know, right now?

If Hemingway’s writing style could be assumed to follow his dictum about truth, then my friend Janet Steen’s very fine essay in The Weeklings, “Strip It Down,” would seem to go along with him: simple declarative sentences are somehow more “true.”

I don’t agree.

Okay, Janet wasn’t making a claim about truth; she was just stating her current preference for straight talk. But there are factions out there who love to turn personal taste into dogma, and this is one of the popular ones: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Another one: “First Thought, Best Thought.” I’ve heard my friend Marta Szabo, co-director of the Authentic Writing Workshops, espouse that idea and I’m sure it has been a powerful force to help many of her workshop participants break free of the inner critic. That is a good thing, for them.

But again, I don’t agree.

And a giant among gospels is this one: “The Author Must Be Invisible In Service Of The Story.” I’ll wager you’ll find that nugget buried somewhere on every writer’s site across the vast interwebs.

Sorry, I don’t accept it.

Forgive my contrarian pose; you get the picture. What I’m saying is that there are no aphoristic definitions of better, more true, more authentic writing. There are no rules. There are only individuals.

I’m certain Janet would not argue with me: Simple sentences may be more true for some writers, but others need the ins and outs and sidetrips and detours to accurately, even profoundly, map their own minds on the page.

No doubt Marta would allow for this: Revision may destroy one writer’s spontaneous truth, but for another it will, like a sculptor’s chisel, reveal the real beauty hidden in the stone. Or, to over-extend a simile, add more bits of clay onto the basic shape until a perfect likeness emerges.

And must story always trump style? Of course not. That's like saying that Cezanne should have just used a camera to make his images so we could see the damned peaches like they really look! For me, a big part of the pleasure of reading is knowing that I am inside the mind of a writer with her own unique way of expressing thoughts. I like getting to know the author just as much if not more than the characters. Art is about the artist first, the subject second.

Which ties to the words of Fred Poole, founder of the Authentic Writing Workshops, when he says that all art is autobiographical and that the workshops he and Marta offer are all about getting at “who a person really is.” And better yet, that writing authentically can create a new, perhaps even subversive, definition of reality....  But why am I paraphrasing?  Hear for yourself, in these two simple little videos I had the pleasure of putting together. Only four minutes each, so watch them to the end!

Part 1: 

Part 2: