In Writing, Tell the Truth

The-Rooms-are-Filled

Today I’m very happy to have my friend Jessica Null Vealitzek as a guest on my blog!

Jess and I met online, connecting over writing and a mutual love of good books when she first got involved with Great New Books, where she is one of six contributors (by the way, if you haven’t seen this blog, you should check it out). We started talking about writing and reading and publishing (we were both writing novels). Fast forward to the current day, and Jess just last month debuted a wonderful first novel (that I just finished reading and loved!): The Rooms Are Filled. In addition to Great New Books, Jess writes for PDXX Collective and has her own blog at True STORIES. She also contributes to the anthologies Three Minus One and The HerStories Project. (Did I mention that Jess also has two young children?)

Please welcome Jess with a post about something near and dear to her heart.

 

In Writing, Tell the Truth

I often think back to one particular assignment in Ms. Jenewein’s Expository Writing class my senior year of high school. We had to interview someone and write an article.

I chose to interview a friend’s father because, starting with almost nothing, he had worked hard to become quite successful. I asked him questions, typed up the answers, and turned in my profile. Probably B-worthy. Fine by me.

Ms. Jenewein handed it back with something like, “You can do better,” written at the top.

Excuse me? It was a perfectly respectable article. I’ll take the B, thank you.

I walked up to her desk, article in hand, hoping to talk her out of making me re-do it. She asked me why it was so dry, why she didn’t feel she knew the subject of the interview. Finally, I crinkled my nose and quietly admitted, “I don’t like him very much.”

“Aha!” she said. “Write the real version. He’ll never have to know.”

The final article, the one I earned an A for–the one I was proud of–was called, “Interview with a Vampire.” (The movie was big at the time; I was being clever.) Ms. Jenewein hugged me and said, “This is the result when a writer tells the truth.”

Russian proverbI have never received another piece of advice more useful. Tell the truth. Readers know when you’re lying, when you’re fitting the story into the words you want to say, or don’t. You know it, too. And when, in the midst of writing, you hit upon a truth you didn’t even realize was there, it’s golden.

That happened to me just a few years later, in college, and it was an experience that has served as one of the more important moments in my life, both creatively and personally.

I sat in my dorm room revising a creative nonfiction piece, a letter to my alcoholic uncle I’d been working on for some time. The piece was dear to me, as was my uncle. He was a poor father, a poor husband, he was in and out of rehab, he borrowed money, but I loved him—we all loved him. He was a goofy, playful, charming man and I’d always felt a special bond with him. Once when I was young, he pulled me aside at a Christmas party and told me how much I meant to him. It was one of my most cherished memories. His slide into homelessness had been devastating.

I wrote all of this in my letter to him. And because he once wrote me a card that said, “I am proud to be your uncle,” I ended with, “I am proud to be your niece.”

Something about the piece, though, didn’t feel right and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the words. Then I found myself picking up the pen and writing: “I found out later that you were drunk the time you told me how much I meant to you.”

I continued writing almost without thought: “You were drunk. But that’s okay.”

And it was. It was okay. At the time, this was a revelation—that not only my uncle could be flawed, but our relationship could be flawed and I could still love him and be loved by him. Instead of writing the story I wanted to tell, I’d told the truth. I felt lighter. And my letter was much, much better.

There are loads of books that use many pages explaining how to write. In my opinion, it comes down to just three things: Read a lot. Write a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.

It’s such a tall order and yet so absolutely freeing: simply tell the truth. It will be more than good enough.

pic-screen-shot Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of The Rooms Are Filled, the 1983 coming-of-age story of two outcasts brought together by circumstance: a Minnesota farm boy transplanted to suburban Chicago after his father dies, and the closeted young woman who becomes his teacher. You can read more about Jessica and her book on her web site.

Comments

  1. Yes, yes and YES. Thank you for the reminder of what’s at the root of all good writing, and where to return when the words ring hollow to my own ears. Tell the truth. (And then, if it’s fiction and you’re writing an ugly truth based on someone you really know, change the character’s hair color for plausible deniability.)

  2. Micky Wolf says:

    Love it–you have hit the writing nail on the head with a (compassionate) slap of wisdom. Thank you! And I hope I’m commenting on the correct page. :)

  3. Jess- beautifully written, as always. I agree writing is incredibly therapeutic and helps to find our truth. Often times the feelings we are having are only a symptom of a deeper issue. Writing allows me to “get it all out there” and make sense of the noise inside of my head. If I didn’t write my feelings out first, I end up confusing and frustrating people because I talk in circles without making any rational points. It has become an essential part of personal and professional success for me. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I absolutely love your thumbnail sketch at the end:

    “There are loads of books that use many pages explaining how to write. In my opinion, it comes down to just three things: Read a lot. Write a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.”

    Amen siSTAR!

  5. Your words are so beautiful and wise, Jessica. I don’t have much to add than that, other than to say this rang completely true to me, in that powerful way truth does.

  6. Simple and honest, and so easy to forget. Lovely piece. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. angel011 says:

    Lovely written.
    I mostly write horror and fantasy and fairy tales, and it only works if I tell the truth, whatever it may be. Even if the writing isn’t all that good, readers feel whether it’s true or not.

  8. Great post Jessica and the Russian proverb that goes with it, I read it and thought, this sounds very much like the book I have just read, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, the two characters epitomising truth and kindness, though ultimately both contained elements of deception.

    In writing, the truth is worth digging for, peeling back the layer to listen to those often quieter, subconscious words.

  9. Jessica, this was such a wonderful post with great advice. I’ve always thought your writing to be fresh and honest. There is so much more clarity when the truth is told. There’s nothing to cover up or be wishy-washy about.
    Keep writing my friend, you have found an devoted fan in me.

  10. Julie Luek says:

    Oh this is very good– how wonderful that your teacher pushed you a little bit to dig down and find your truth. A very good lesson for us all to remember, no matter the age (but not always an easy one!).

  11. You are so right, Jess. I told half-truths to others and to myself for so many years and while it felt okay at the time, I realized I cheated them and myself. The truth gives us the chance to grow, to learn, and to be exactly who we are, flaws and all.

    I love that you wrote that letter to your uncle. You are top notch, my dear friend. And LOVE seeing you on Julia’s blog. Surprised my laptop didn’t spontaneously combust from “Too Much Awesome” overload. xoxo

    • :) Too funny.
      I think we all do that, or at least most of us. I’m still learning. It’s much easier, for me anyway, to be fully honest in writing than in real life. I’m a born people pleaser, chock full of half-lies. Well-intentioned but, you know. I’ve gotten much, much better though–I think kids made me grow up and see what’s important.

  12. Nina says:

    I have the book on my nightstand and I can’t wait to read it!

  13. Wow. I loved that. Thank you for telling the truth here and sharing your stories.

    I feel as though even in fiction, there’s an opportunity to tell the truth, to be emotionally honest about what’s trying to be conveyed.

  14. Hi Jessica! What a beautiful, beautiful post. I genuinely couldn’t agree more with your advice. And your story about your uncle and the letter is strikingly similar to an experience of my own (father + poem, but same concept). Thank you so much for sharing that with us!

  15. This is invaluable writing advice, Jessica. Thank you for reminding all of us about the importance of putting the truth on the page. The same applies to fictional characters. They have a truth to share also.

    Hemingway said (I’m paraphrasing here) that our jobs as writers are to write the truest sentences we know. If we do that, then everything else will take care of itself.

  16. Grace/Lynne says:

    Hi, Jessica! Congratulations on your book, The Rooms Are Filled! This article is timely in my writing process journey. When I began writing a memoir I was afraid to write the “truths” in all their beautiful rawness. Mainly, I didn’t want to “go” where the truths took me and because I was raised to be polite, never bring shame upon a family, and to keep silences. I felt as if I would betray members although they betrayed me. I was also ashamed of myself and family members. Growing up seeking love and approval taught me tolerance, the importance of love and compassion toward others. I became braver and stronger than I knew. I developed a quiet resilience and I swore that I would be only the most loving and committed parent and person. I decided to write the story and to honour the character’s, to find a way to show their complicated sides with grace and compassion- their “truths.”

    So now I am writing “truths!” Some days I am afraid to leave the sores exposed. Already I know that I am in a better place and that as you so eloquently wrote, we can simply love another in all their “flawed relationships” with us. Thank you for showing readers that tender moments are the precious ones; the “truths.”
    x
    Lynne/”Grace”

  17. Pamela says:

    So happy I found you and this blog. Being a creative writing teacher for many years, I’d say this is the most important lesson I impart – write honestly! The writing can’t be good, unless it’s honest and truthful and real.

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