Yesterday was my first time teaching my new Narrative Writing class. I’m a communication professor, and it’s an English class, so it seems a bit odd. But the English department is excited, I’m excited, and I hope my students will be excited too. Actually, the feeling I got from them yesterday morning was one of dread, fear maybe, with a little horror thrown in there. But I take teaching writing seriously, and I told them that my expectation was that they were there to learn how to write better, not just rack up another letter grade on the road to their diploma.
One of the things I said early on was that I was planning on being totally honest with them, and expected them to be totally honest with me. If something stunk, or if I didn’t agree with something, I would tell them. The idea of total honesty is a carry over from a statement that my friend and fellow writer/editor Tim Lale made to me a few years ago. He encouraged me to create “honest writing.” I struggled with that word “honest” for quite a while, not sure what the implications meant. In the end, I think the word is multifacted, dealing with truthful, unbiased views of our writing, warts and all.
That goes hand in glove with a piece that my Narrative Writing students will be discussion tomorrow. It’s from the first chapter of the excellent book by Ralph Keyes entitled The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. He writes: “All writers must confront their fears eventually. The sooner they do this, the better their work will be.” I think Keyes is really talking about honest writing when he goes past surface issues and digs into the psyche of the writer–and the reader. Novels need to be about subjects that people don’t talk about in polite company. They need to be about those issues that people fret about, that drive them to be the person they need or wish to be. They need to challenge the reader–and the writer.
This issue of honesty is better than a breadbox. It isn’t something someone can easily figure out, and then just put away, contented. It has rattled around in my mind for several years, and I encourage you to let it rattle around in yours. It has the promise to make a better writer–and a human being–out of you.
As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, the honesty issue also has to do with my own identity. Do I pretend that I am one person when I got to church, another when I am in my office, and a third when I am bouncing around online? Am I being honest with those I deal with–and myself? If I do switch identities–based on the expectations of those I interact with–am I being dishonest? Am I afraid to present myself as a Seventh-day Adventist to my online friends, or as a science fiction writing author to my church colleagues.
Honesty is less about telling the truth to others, and more about telling the truth to yourself. And maybe there’s a novel in there somewhere.
After all, how honest are we with each other, anyway?