Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

I had a mini breakthrough over the weekend. Something CJ said recently about trusting the story clicked into place for me. I went back to the beginning and started reading through my draft, and realized that when I get insecure about my work, I cover it in elaborate metaphor, or try to rely on rhythm and vocabulary to gloss over the fact that I’m afraid to tell the story.

So much of writing is about overcoming fear. For me, the fear lies in revealing a politically incorrect world view, exposing my filthy mind, being vulnerable to assaults on my intellect or the lack thereof. I paint my fears with a wordy shellac and hope the shine will dazzle the reader out of any honest assessment of me or what I’m trying (not) to say.

The breakthrough is this: the words are less important than the story.

And as I strip away the varnish, the few remaining words seem to gain power. The verbs are more vigorous, the sentences more austere. I have to claim them, I won’t be able to persuade the reader that I didn’t mean what I wrote because it’s all in plain sight. Full frontal, there you go, I said it and I meant it and for better or worse, I will have to own it. It’s still scary as hell, but the fear is part of the story. And I have a story to tell.

What do you hide behind when you’re afraid to tell the truth?

42 responses

  1. Funny but I just sent you a link to an interview with Eli Gottlieb that pretty much says the same thing.

    Here it is, again, for everyone:

    Me? I’m too impetuous. See, even here I just jump in, without much thought. Can someone be too impetuous? Seems redundant. I wish I could sit with myself for more than a nanosecond. Perhaps then I’d find the right way to say what it is I want.

    • I just bought this book and now I’ve got my Kindle hidden on the pull-out tray under my desk. If the boss catches me, I will read a passage aloud to her and say, Come ON, I’m only human, could YOU put this down? So, so good already.

      And the interview is fantastic, thanks for the link, MSB.

      Impetuous is not the word I’d immediately choose to describe you, so it’s interesting that you’d choose it for yourself. I wonder if we can ever get close to seeing ourselves the way others do.

    • MSB I relate to what he says in this interview very much. As a writer who uses autobiographical material but is interested in The telling not the pity of it. Pity is never enough. Like him I want to speak my truth but I want praise for the prose not the life.

      • This is the part that made me think of Averil:

        “The danger of approaching novel writing as a poet is that poets tend to be overly concerned with the local intensity of the phrasing and to lose sight of the long-haul structure of the narrative.”

        CJ, I think life, like the story, must come first. If you can make it stand out in poetic, sultry ways, more power to you but the core of it has to be present. You don’t have to worry about that with your writing. The story is already there. Hell, so is the prose.

        • I don’t know what comes first life and finding voice are so in tandem for me. Everyone’s life is precious, but not everyone presents that life in prose.

  2. I hide behind silence and delay. I change the names and hide behind the “any relationship is purely coincidental” disclaimer. I hide in plain sight. Hide from myself. Running running running, hiding hiding hiding, no in-come-free for this all-ye.

  3. It’s funny the term is ‘politically incorrect’ when it really has nothing to do with politics. It’s one way of silencing critique though, so I never use that phrase. It’s been made ugly. Saying misogynistic stuff, bad stand up jokes are justified by the speaker saying, I’m being ‘politically incorrect’, like it’s a badge of honour. We need a new phrase to be able to use it for fierce, bold things. You’re being brassy. You’re a superhero fighting the mediocre. You’re putting the fire through your words by letting the excess burn away.

    Me, I’m afraid of the stilted sorrow in my character’s eyes, how to bring that out without letting the text be dulled up with it.

    • I need a cape and some red thigh-high boots.

      I think sadness in a character is beautiful as long as there is forward progress. I read a book last year in which the character was so dour that even the lovely writing couldn’t save her. She didn’t DO anything, she just let herself be carried along by outside forces. If she had taken a bit of control, it would have made a world of difference.

  4. I hide behind flip delivery and casually brutal asides. In my writing and in person. The real stuff always starts one layer beneath that. The good news is–in the writing at least–it’s an easy fix as I work my way through a more polished draft. In life, well, people generally either love me or hate me. I’m like cilantro.

  5. I intellectualize and repeat what I’ve already said more simply in a previous passage, not trusting my reader to get it. So afraid they won’t get it, I become heavy handed.

  6. As a writer, I like to be wordy. As an editor, I whittle it all away.

    But to answer your question: What do I hide behind? Anger. That’s my go-to for any situation. See? I’m not fucking hiding because I’m all up in your grill, bitch. Except, of course, that’s all a bunch of bullshit that protects me (so I believe) and effectively pushes everyone and everything far away from my hiding place.

    • Anger is sexy, though, so I suspect it comes in handy in your work. But anger scares the shit out of me, which is probably why I turn it inward; nothing feels worse to me than hurting someone’s feelings. Mama raised a good girl.

  7. Interpersonally, I hide behind my little-girl face, my polite smile, my humor, the book I’m holding in front of my face so I don’t have to talk to you. On the page, I’m very good at hiding– I have made up an interesting voice for my blog, but it’s not me. Sometimes my made-up self helps me to express something, but sometimes she just gets in the way. (Tangent: I just redesigned my blog and now I feel like a different person. Weird, huh?)

    • I have that same face. My mom told me once that if you look or sound too sweet, you should take up cursing as a foil. Which I have. Thanks, Mom.

      What blog design are you using? The home page is terrific, I like the visual references to each post.

  8. I hide behind humor. It beats a coke habit.

    In my writing I hide my fear in the spaces. I put two scenes together and don’t explain the connection between them because it would be too revealing.

    In my poetry I hide fear behind beautiful but meaningless images.

  9. The thing about poetry is that the writer can be enigmatic about the work and say, I meant it that way, and if you don’t understand, that’s okay, you only need to feel it. . . . I can see how the imagery might be a trap in which even the poet sometimes gets caught.

  10. I’m buoyed by your breakthrough, Averil. It gives me hope that I’ll come to one, too. I love your metaphor of stripping away the varnish and seeing your remaining words gain power. It makes me want to sit here all evening and try harder.

    When I’m afraid to tell the truth, I either shut up or tell it and wait for people to cringe. Sometimes, when telling it my own way (which isn’t always as clear as I think it is), it isn’t understood and that leads again to silence. Then I hide behind a competent smile and pretend I didn’t have so much to say after all.

    • Round and round we go, Re, isn’t that right? Because the fact is, you and I have not yet decided whether we want to tell our truths. We’re never going to be as clear as we’d like until we make the decision to really go for it, and keep going, without looking back.

  11. Don’t know. What do you think ?

    Chapter Sooner.


Knowing only the city, that concrete harshness, the solid surface and the unrelenting noise, it was more than just strange to be here… she lay on the blanket, all feeling and no movement, and there was too much truth… she melted into that huge sky, felt every star as part of her, and so many would shoot across the sky, life and death burning into her, piercing her heart, leaving her alone, impotent, nothing.

And yes, she ached for him, but it didn’t seem real, possible.

This world was too big , it had too much air, too many stars, too much possibility;     it was too soft ;    the too much beauty descended on her, enclosed her:  the too much joy filled her and stretched her and pulsated inside her… and as it stretched her and expanded her and demanded she be its part of her she became as vast as that implausible sky, and she felt she couldn’t ever allow him inside, her hugeness would destroy his fragile smallness, he’d be lost in her, never to touch her;   no silken touch, no soft flesh, just dreaming searching fingers reaching into the void, and nothing to find but the gigantic echoing cavernous grief that had become her.


To Create the Chapters of a Life one must Do more than just Write

Chapter Later.


And if there WERE stars in this sky she would find them, and she would feel them and know them;    and if they turned out to be just ordinary pieces of glass picking up their light from other places then she’d find that out and move on, and it’d be ok.. because one day, sooner or later, she wouldn’t have to just settle… one of those shooting stars, in all it’s intimate blazing glory, would be her — and she’d be home.

  12. I don’t know how to answer this question, so maybe I hide so well I don’t even know my own hiding place. I do feel like the writing process is a constant, continual battle to become honest and then stay honest, and then work some more at continuing to stay honest. It can be exhausting but it’s also the only way.

    • I think maybe you’ve evolved beyond the need for hiding. Maybe that’s why your writing struck me as having a childlike quality, the quality of simple honesty. It’s surprisingly rare.

  13. I hide behind humor in real-life and words in writing. Too many words all trying to get to the meat of what I want to say but am to chicken to say it.

  14. You are so right. I remember realising that too. That words are the noise and the lather. If there is no story they are waffle, costume jewellery, junk food.

    Feels so good, doesn’t it? Clarity.

    • It feels fantastic. I’m a child with a glue drawing, shaking off the last bits of glitter to see what’s underneath. The more I consider my mini breakthrough, the more it feels like a major one. I was thinking last night about how I had to go through this with photography. I had all the lighting and backdrops and fancy equipment, and as soon as I scrapped all that and started using film and natural light, my work sprang magically to life.

      Why do we have to teach ourselves the same lessons again and again?

  15. I stop writing and make excuses. Or I spend entire mornings writing and then hit the delete button. I think my most recent ploy was to create a character that was gimicky – someone I could walk around the pool without dipping a toe in the water.

    I just emailed to tell you I’ve scrapped him, including that first chapter. Every time I signed in yesterday to read it I hated it more. He’s not the right person to tell my story. He may help make word count, but mucks it up. So yay, more edits!

    • Okay, I’m resisting the urge to say, Are you SURE? Because that’s not going to help. Just promise me you’ll save the version you showed me, because you may find it works better than you imagine at the moment.


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