One aspect of a writer that I look for in a potential client is that she has a sense of who she is and what she should write. Not in a “I love my novel and WILL get it published” kind of way, but more in a “I know I’m meant to be a writer” way. This is someone who will write regardless who–if anyone–ever reads her stuff. When a writer realizes this is the case for him, that forms the beginning of finding the solitary place in yourself from which all the best writing springs. But writing authentically doesn’t come easily–and sometimes, after having found it, it drifts away from us.
Why Writing Authentically Is Hard
Part of the challenge of finding our authentic voice is that we learn to write by imitating others. That certainly was the case of me.
I always wanted to be a writer, and as I was growing up, I wrote a novel every summer, wrote poetry, and dreamed of what I would say in my Pulitzer-Prize acceptance speech.
But the truth of the matter is that I was more of a reader than a writer. So, when I joined the staff of Cru and was assigned to the publications department to–of all things–write full-time, I didn’t just feel like a fraud. I was one.
Never one to admit defeat easily, I decided, if I was to succeed at this writing business I better figure out how to write. So I began the process by imitating good writers. I studied magazines (this was back when magazines were a big thing). I studied writing that was excellent, and I studied it in a microscopic way and in a macroscopic way. All was of interest to me–the use of punctuation, word choice, transitions, opening paragraphs, closing paragraphs, when quotes were used–everything.
Finding Your Voice
But moving from imitation to finding your own voice is challenging because writers view themselves as not really a writer who is just waiting for the world to realize that truth. Even best-selling, award-winning writers tend to think of their inadequacy rather than their competency.
But the truth of the matter is that we’re growing organisms who discover facets of our authentic selves as we write from as deep and pure a place within ourselves as we can. Our job is to painstakingly plumb our own depths. For that is where authenticity resides. If we swim only in the shallow water, nothing fresh will spring from our fingertips. This is the easy path to completing the writing assignment. We don’t bother to search for the pearl of a verb or a twist of phrase that pleases both the reader and you. This is also where we feel no vulnerability. The truths residing in us aren’t wrested from the ocean of our lives, but we write about pat solutions that neither inspire nor challenge the reader.
Authenticity and Dr. Zhivago
I’ve been reading a book (The Dr. Zhivago Affair) about Boris Pasternak’s writing of Dr. Zhivago, and what a driving force finding his authentic self through the writing was. Famous for his poetry, he had been a Nobel Prize finalist three times and drew overflowing crowds in massive auditoriums to listen to him recite his poems. He sometimes even paused in the recitation, pretending he couldn’t remember the next line of a poem because the whole audience would call out that line to him. What pleasure that must have brought.
But he felt like an imposter because he had not yet written the novel he so yearned to create. He likened himself to a painter who spent his life drawing sketches in preparation for the painting of his lifetime.
Writing Authenticity Leads to Exuberance
It took him ten years to complete Dr. Zhivago, but he knew it was his magnum opus. The exuberance he felt as he explored the deep well within himself can still be felt in the words he used to describe the experience. “I am in the same high spirits I enjoyed more than 30 years ago; it’s almost embarrassing.” It seemed to him that the days and weeks were whistling past his ears. “I wrote it with great ease. The circumstances were so definite, so fabulously terrible. All that I had to do was listen to their prompting with my whole soul and follow obediently.” It’s inspiring stuff to read the thoughts he penned in his journal and in letters as he kept his friends apprised of the novel’s progress.
Pasternak was at the end of his writing career when he finished Dr. Zhivago. (He was 65 and would live for only five more years after the novel was completed). For him to discover so much about himself at that stage of his life is heady for us consider. The rewards of writing authentically never grow tiresome.
Writing Authenticity Often Is Costly
But Pasternak was told that the novel into which he had poured his soul would never be published by a Russian publisher. It was viewed as too individualistic for a Soviet writer. All writing, whether a news article or a poem or a novel must praise the communal life and Communism. The individual must not rise up in any writing to be viewed as noteworthy.
So Pasternak pressed the full manuscript into the hands of an Italian publisher who had come to visit the famous poet and to inquire what he might be currently writing. Boris desperately wanted the world to read the novel even though Soviet leaders were regularly killing any intelligentsia who refused to tow the party line. As Pasternak pushed the fat sheaf of paper into the publisher’s hands, Boris said, “I give you this along with an invitation to my execution.” Writing authentically instills power and conviction in the author.
How Do You Know if You’re Writing Authentically?
A test for whether we’re writing authentically is to pass all one’s writing and publishing decisions through the sieve of Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think [write] about such things.”
Should you find yourself tempted to borrow an especially lovely phrase from a novel you just read to use it in your fiction, that most certainly is not in keeping with Philippians 4:8. If you set aside your contracted manuscript, knowing you’ll miss the deadline, to accept an unexpected writing assignment with significant money attached to it, that will not pass the Philippians 4:8 sniff test. What if you dash off a manuscript with a certain carelessness to meet the deadline? That is not a noble undertaking, nor is it praiseworthy.
Writing authentically can be inconvenient. Actually, it often is.
How Do You Marry Writing for the Market and Writing What You’re Eager to?
Certainly Pasternak paid no mind to what the market demanded of him–which was more poetry. He was condemned by every newspaper and media outlet in the Soviet Union when he won the Nobel Prize for Dr. Zhivago. Most of his friends ostracized him, and the government refused to allow him to accept any of the royalties from the numerous foreign publishers who had made Dr. Zhivago an international best-seller. But Pasternak told the Nobel committee he would accept the award. That is, until the pressure on him became too great, including his mistress and her daughter being sent to the Gulag as surrogates to punish Pasternak. At that point he wrote to the committee that he would not accept the award after all.
But we live and work in a different world. So how do we balance writing what we feel passionate about with writing what the market wants?
The Head-and-Heart Combo
I always tell authors, as they consider what they’re writing and how they’ll approach a project to listen to their head.
- what’s does the reader want
- what’s being published
- and what will sell?
And then listen to their heart
- what do they yearn to write
- what are they passionate about?
Never exclude either your head or your heart. Both have their own wisdom to offer. Not, go forth and write authentically.
Which techniques did you use to learn how to write when you first started? What have you written that reflects your authentic self? Which author comes to mind as someone who writes authentically?
I started writing poetry
as a lark, a jibe, a jest,
something that would put ennui
to flight, a kind of litmus test
for what writing skills I had
(fourteen lines to tell a story!);
the old me would have thought it mad
that I would find a sort of glory
on this strange and stony path
in which each chosen word comes hard,
shaking hands with Frost and Plath,
rubbing shoulders with the Bard,
and though my works will line no shelf,
I’m true to God-created self.
Sometimes I read the comments here just for your poems, Andrew. I feel you should know.
Elissa, wow… I am so grateful that you told me this!
Your poetry has brought laughter, tears, and joy as you’ve commented on our posts. Thank you for applying your gift in our presence.
Two authors/books came immediately to mind.
In Storycraft – The Art of Spiritual Narrative, Walt Wangerin Jr. walks the reader/writer/speaker through the process of using stories to show spiritual truths, which eventually change the heart. Throughout all his books, I hear Walt’s voice, encouraging me to know God more. His own struggles are wonderfully illustrated. Walt didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t. Quite the opposite. His authenticity, his honest struggles, made me feel seen and heard in my own.
When I read Wangerin, I feel as if he is sitting next to me, cheering me on and pointing me to the love of the Father, despite all my shortcomings. I want to be that kind of writer.
Martin Schleske is another one of my favorites. In The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty, Martin writes about the lessons he has learned as a luthier, a violin-maker. He calls his stories parables. I like that.
Thank you so much for this wonderful reminder, Janet!
Wangerin’s writing I know and love. Schleske is new to me. Sounds like I should taste a bit of his writing. Thanks for mentioning these two, Heidi.
Janet, The Sound ranks up there with one of my all-time favorite books. You will enjoy the taste … But beware, it cannot be eaten in big bites.
Wendy L Macdonald
Thank you, dear Janet, for taking the time to encourage us to write authentically. And by the way, you did this so beautifully; like here: “Our job is to painstakingly plumb our own depths. For that is where authenticity resides. If we swim only in the shallow water, nothing fresh will spring from our fingertips.”
I confess that when I first started blogging, I wrote from a simple place. Not only had I not read any writing craft books yet, but I also didn’t know what “writing voice” meant. When a writing friend commented she liked my voice, I was puzzled. How could someone who wrote as lovely as a lady in a glorious gown like the voice of one who dressed in threadbare hand-me-downs?
I understand it now. When I’m passionate about a topic, my voice rises to God’s calling in me.
The first five authors who came to mind when you asked about who’s good at authenticity are Ann Voskamp, Michele Cushatt, Beth K. Vogt, Cynthia Ruchti, and Shelli Littleton. Their social media posts and books always shine authenticity. While each of these writers writes unique words, I aspire to learn from them all.
It feels like they love and trust their readers. This makes me love them.
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac
Thanks, Wendy, for noting that I took the time to do a little deep diving in writing the blog post. It seemed inauthentic not to. 🙂
I love your description of finding your voice and even in figuring out what that meant.
I love the list of authors whose books you connect to because they authors are “visible” through their words, even when writing fiction.
Oh my goodness, Wendy Mac … that you would list me. Me. And in the same group as Ann Voskamp, Beth, Cynthia, Michele … I’m stunned and so blessed by you. This encouragement means the world. I’ll save this always, sweet friend.
It took me years to refine my voice. Now, when I’ve gotten it right, I sense a peace in the Spirit. When I started my website oh-so-long ago, I thought I was building a platform. Wrong! Posting to my blog has refined my voice and honed my writing style. It is my Ebenezer, “thus far the Lord has helped me” (1 Samuel 7:12).
I hadn’t thought about blog writing as a way to find one’s voice, but that makes so much sense. You have to regularly produce copy that readers will find compelling and that they can relate to.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Argh! I think my comment disappeared. Now, can I be as authentic a commenter the second time? Hopefully, but I think this will be shorter, ha! It was so wonderful to hear how you worked for Cru, Janet. My husband was saved because of a long and patient friendship from someone who went to Cru WSU! To answer those questions, well I have trained by trying. Writing stuff, cutting stuff, getting it critiqued, throwing it out, rescuing some of it, and trying again. Classes and learning and then just writing some more. Where in my writing am I most authentic? Well, I love to write … but the calling part, well that is all about writing for the camp where I work. I never intended to write for the camp … but God, ha! He has us running around all crazy all summer long doing camp stuff and no one writes down the miracles big and small. No one tells the stories. No one has time … except me. So that is my calling. Capturing just a tiny bit of the essence of camp ministry and sharing with those who don’t get to be there. Who has an authentic voice? I was just blown away by reading Robin W. Pearson’s Long Time Comin’ this year. So amazing!
Kristen, I felt like a chronicler when I wrote for the magazines and newspaper at Cru. I interviewed staff members all over the world, reported on big events, and interviewed people touched by God through Cru. Everyday I had the joy of writing about God at work. It was wondrous. So I understand what a calling your role as writer is for your camp. Bless the work you and your husband do!
Authentic. One of my favorite words.
My WIP is bringing up many emotions concerning my mother. I’m very passionate about that sometimes turbulent relationship that is mothers and daughters.
“…Wicked Witch. Miriam had never voiced it out loud, but sadly she’d referenced the not so endearing term toward her mother on more than one occasion. Miriam stared across the airstrip. Thunder rumbled in the distance. YOU’RE JUST LIKE ME. Her mother’s words haunted her. It was a lie, wasn’t it? Because the last thing she’d wanted was to be like her mother. Bitter. Cowardly, like the lion in the Wizard of Oz…”
Author Robin Jones Gunn always comes to mind as she writes 100% authentic.
Thanks for these wise words you have written.
So very timely.
Gail, Robin writes from her heart, in which much poetry resides. I love the way eloquent words tumble from her fingertips. They are things of beauty and honesty.
So much valuable encouragement here, Janet. Loved your writerly perspective on Philippians 4:8, as well. “Write through me, Jesus,” is a real challenge with one eye on the market, and requires absolute trust that, if we do the work, He will shepherd our work where it needs to go. Thank you for this thoughtful, helpful post.
You’re so welcome, Debra. I’m thankful you found the post meaningful and challenging.