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:


  1. Where did my comment go? :) I posted it about half an hour ago and I see it has disappeared. So I will try again -- first and foremost -- a huge thank you to you, Brent, for sharing the videos -- your skill and sensitivity to the subject at hand were crucial. Thank you. And thank you for bringing up the subject of what people say about writing and how ultimately each writer finds their own way. Yes, I agree with that wholeheartedly. I hope our workshops support people in finding their individual ways rather than than attempting to dictate rigid rules. I liken writers finding their own ways to bushwhacking, not just because I'm a Will Nixon fan, but because that's what it feels like to me: wilderness, hacking, no trail and no desire for a trail

    You're right in that I do have a strong feeling for the brilliance, mystery and power of those first thoughts. I think those first sentences that hit the page hold the vitality of the finished piece and are the riskiest steps of the whole process. I put alot of emphasis on those first thoughts, the first impulses -- so many people want to write and it's this first step that stops them repeatedly. And if a writer goes no further than that first creation I think they will have done the most important piece and their art can be found there by those who look. For myself, I handwrite my first onslaught of a story and then I type. I like having a second run via the typing. I can slip in some sharpenings, but again, I try not to think too much. And, again, I leave 80% of my writing at this stage. For pieces that have a more public future another instinctual process takes place. For instance, when I know I am going to read a piece out loud in public, something new takes over and I trim and change until I am happy to read it out loud.

    So it's not JUST first thought that is my writing experience. But that moment of first writing, when I am choosing to say this and not that, to go in this direction, not that, I still find this the most vital part of writing, the part I do repeatedly, the aspect of writing that contributes the most to my life and health and well being. The part I seek most to share with others.

    Thank you for the forum! I hope others chime in. And now, let's see if this comment takes in a way that the other one didn't!

  2. Marta, I like your focus on that crucial moment of decision or impulse that moves us down one path instead of another... that is the key thing, isn't it?

    And I definitely want to avoid overthinking. But for me, the real joy of writing is re-writing. As I've grown older and am writing less often than before, I just don't have the vocabulary and syntax at my fingertips at a first draft stage, so that what I mean to say really does not hit the page. It needs careful but intuitive revision, and even a thesaurus, and finally I may capture the feeling or idea that was inside me to begin with. Words are a damned unsatisfactory medium most of the time.

    Thanks for your wisdom and good cheer. I'd love it if others would join the discussion as well. Helloooo... (is there an echo?)

  3. Love this discussion.

    I embrace all you said, Marta. Those first thoughts that pour out of our subconscious can be raw and potent. There’s exquisite, unbidden beauty in that.

    But something you said, Brent, about re-writing --how beauty and truth emerge from chiseling away the excess -- also hits home. While my initial experience of letting thoughts rip uncensored onto the page is exhilarating, my sentences are often surfacy and unsatisfying even as I write them. The more precise and concrete I can make each sentence, the deeper I probe what’s underneath, the more I understand what I’m trying to say. So it’s only through revision (which I’ve grown to relish infinitely more than first drafts) that I can get closer to the truest sentence I know.

    Thanks for another great post, Brent. A bonus to see Authentic Writing Workshops spotlighted on video. I’d always heard great things about Marta and Fred. Easy to see why so many writers love them.

  4. Stephen King stated that he rewrites most of his chapters 6 times. I rewrote my book innumerable times, and I even changed 2 lines the night before the publisher sent my (already set in stone) novel to the printer. Louise Erdrich revised one of her books after it won the National Book Award. No rule which is correct for one writer is the proper one for another. Faulkner composed long, metaphoric sentences, and Hemingway never used a word that contained 2 syllables if he could find a word that created the same connotation in one. Each of us must develop a unique way of communicating the truth of what motivates the heart of the matter, or the theme of the work. Workshops are extremely valuable for critiques and suggestions, but ultimately, I find that a combination of every aphorism, combined with every writing style from the author of Gilgamesh to the most contemporary writer, plus every rule I ever read influences me.

  5. When I first began writing the piece of prose that would end up being my first novel I gave next to no thought about my opening sentence. I simply started writing. Over the next fifteen years I rewrote that sentence hundreds of times. Every time I picked up the manuscript I would reread that sentence and fiddle with it some more. Once the book was finally in print I dug out that very first draft only to discover that the final sentence was exactly the same as it was when I first wrote it. It’s probably the only sentence in the whole damn book that is the same mind you.

    I don’t have any rules that I follow other than: Do what feels natural at the time. Most of my poetry requires very little work. I shift the lines about, swap a few synonyms, think of a title and that’s usually me done. The last poem I wrote—which I finished yesterday—I worked on constantly for ten days revising, rereading, revising again, until the thing flowed smoothly and seamlessly from beginning to end. It was right for that poem.

    I don’t understand this whole first draft, second draft, third draft … final draft way of writing. I’ve written five novels and there was never more than one version which I constantly edited as I worked on it so I suppose you could say there were hundreds of drafts. I looked at the metadata for one of my short stories recently and it was up to 600 revisions.

    Finding what’s right for you is often a matter of fluke though so I don’t mind writers saying what works for them; I actually enjoy hearing how others work. There is technique to writing and only a complete egotist will imagine that he or she is a natural who need be taught nothing. Musicians like Yehudi Menuhin are naturals and yet they practice daily to improve their technique. Some of us writers can be a bit snobby and think we’re above all that. Is my way the best way? It’s a way that works. There could be a better way. There probably is. I’m a little scared to rock the boat personally because it is working.

  6. Nanci -- thanks for joining in! You said exactly what I think, on both sides of the question. I've enjoyed Marta & Fred's workshops because I've needed a kick to get anything on paper at all lately, and theirs is a great environment for digging deep into memory. Don't know what form my work there will eventually take.... (Hope to see you around the'hood soon.)

    Sandy -- I love to hear from people I don't know, so a big welcome. I chuckled with complete identification when I read your last sentence. Yes, every writer and every rule, they're all in me, hallelujah! Thank you!

    Jim -- I always find much to agree with you about. I suspect our inner landscapes are similar despite the ocean between us. Same for me: 1st draft, 2nd draft makes no sense because I revise as I go. Makes for slow progress,but so be it. Maybe I could benefit from another way, but on the other hand, I like what Popeye said: "I yam what I yam!"