Writing the Painful Truth

I’ve shared this advice from Susan Taylor Brown once before:

Your writing can come across as unrealistic because you are afraid to write with the authenticity that will force you, and the reader, to feel. If you feel numb when you write, how do you think your readers are going to feel when they read? . . . Lose control. Take the energy you would spend trying to control your work and put it into your work.

Here’s what Ally Condie had to say about Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and the controversy surrounding its censorship:

My father was a judge for many years . . . and he told us things he thought we should know. About what happens to girls everywhere, and why you have to be careful, and why a dark and dangerous boy is, contrary to popular belief, also dark and dangerous to you.

My dad wasn’t trying to scare us or cripple us.

He was just trying to tell us about the world we live in and what happens to the people who live in it. Because even if the pain isn’t yours, it could be. And as a human being, that should matter.

Speak tells you things about someone else’s pain. It tells you things about your own pain. And the catharsis and the beauty in the telling–that is something no one should be denied.

From the lovely Mary Kole:

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

And here is Sara Zarr, paraphrased from the UVU conference a few years ago:

If you sweep people’s pain under the rug, it’s condescending and dehumanizing. If you do that to your characters, you are, in a sense, doing that to your readers, too. Honor your readers by letting them feel pain instead of shielding them.

I’m all about letting my readers feel pain. But what about inflicting it on myself? Is this all really necessary?

My WIP scares the crap out of me right now. My first manuscript was excruciating in a lot of ways, but never scary to put down on paper.

For any of my LDS readers who might have happened to see Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace, I felt physically beat up after watching that film. Did you? And yet I loved it. I remember my mom saying, “I think Richard Dutcher wants Mormons to think about things they don’t want to think about.” Reviewers agreed that he asked difficult questions, leaving many of them unanswered.

I would never set out to “make” anyone think about things they don’t want to think about because I don’t want to write messagey books or run the risk of coming across as disdainful toward my audience, criticisms that have been leveled at Dutcher by some viewers. And yet I keep thinking of the day I saw that film—sitting in the Wynnsong Theater, watching characters come to the precipice of destroying their lives and hanging on by their fingernails at the film’s end. Lately I feel that way every time I sit down to write.

For some reason I’m making myself think about things I don’t want to think about. And then I’m recording those thoughts for others to potentially see, no self-censorship allowed.


I guess it’s because the fun, modern fairytale I was working on before didn’t have much of a pulse. I’ll come back to it someday; I’ll need a break after this beast. But in the meantime, this monster of a book is demanding to be released from its cage.

Ha. If some of you ever read it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. What is hard to write or read is different for everyone, and I’m a huge wimp.

Two questions for you:

1. What’s the hardest book you’ve ever read or the most difficult movie you’ve ever seen that was nevertheless beautiful? What made it rise above the others for you?

2. How do you escape the safe rut of self-censorship in your writing?



Filed under Writing challenges

4 responses to “Writing the Painful Truth

  1. I love this post Kim! I have been struggling with how to end my book cause I am a happy ending girl, but I wonder if it lessens the character’s journey to get everything she wants…Maybe the harder route is the right choice!

    As for your questions: some of my favorite harder subject books are 1) To Kill a Mockingbird and 2) Unwind by Neil Shusterman…

    And I have always been a very open person with my emotions, so I guess pouring that out can come naturally? I hope it comes across on paper!

  2. I wonder if this is my problem right now. Sometimes I think it’s that I don’t have the courage to write it because of the emotion and sometimes I wonder if I just don’t have the belief. I don’t know. But I know that the books that press me, the books that reach me, the book that make the biggest difference are the ones that dare.

  3. There are portions of Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyke series which struck me as exceptionally honest in a way that struck at me as a writer. Portions which made me realize that I was holding back.

    WinterGirls is probably the novel that fits the bill the most, at least that I’ve read this year.

    As for the second question…well there’s the rube. I’m not sure how to get there, but I know that when I edit and edit and edit I have an occasional Ah ha moment when it feels real, harsh, and uncomfortable.

    I think it’s an interesting line to cross when you’re trying to uphold your standards and yet still make an honest novel. No east answers, le sigh.

  4. Hi, Kim! Love that post. And I loved States of Grace, too. I think it was released at the wrong time, after a glut of bad Mormon movies, which is unfortunate because it’s the best LDS-themed movie ever. The themes of redemption and of following your heart vs. following the rules made me cry and made me think.
    I like what you wrote about writing what you’re afraid of. I’m going to mull that one over. That’s a hard question because my fears, issues, and emotions have changed a lot over the last few years. What used to terrify me doesn’t anymore, but I’m frightened about lots of things that didn’t used to pose a threat. Maybe I’ll consult my nightmares.
    I think you’ve accurately described a major problem with many novels, published or not. The stakes are not high enough, things are too easily resolved, and the solutions are too simple and clichéd.
    Find those demons and let them roar!