Truth is the cornerstone of good writing

Reading an article from an Allen & Unwin newsletter I subscribe to, I came upon the title of this blog post. It struck me as particularly relevant to my writing. I struggle with the truth. Not necessarily with telling it, that’s easy; but telling it to someone, anyone, who reads my writing, that’s difficult. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s frightening to think that my truth may not be that of others.

When I was in year 11, age 16 or 17, I started an English class with a new teacher. Let’s call him Mr P, for the sake of anonymity. This guy was awesome. He was the first teacher that gave me hope that my writing may be worth something, that I actually could write, that it was interesting and worth reading. It’s the most depressing thing in the world to be compelled to write but to think your writing is no good! I don’t know why, but I remember writing a short piece, I can’t even call it a story, about my grandparents and their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’. That phrase sticks out to me, as it was one that Mr P highlighted saying he thought it really worked to paint a vivid picture. To me, it was just fact: my grandparents were chain smokers their whole lives, and not only were their walls stained dirty yellow with the smoke of their constantly-fuming cigarettes, all the spines of their books, photo albums, and even pictures hanging on the wall were discoloured. I was just writing what I knew; and it was perfect.

I didn’t show that piece of writing to my grandparents. In fact, I don’t think I showed it to anyone. How would they feel about my description? And that was only the tip of the iceberg. I began to write about the time we went to the leagues club and my dad and granddad let my grandmother have too much to drink and she couldn’t stand up properly and had to be bundled into the car as she sang some old Beatles song. I was furious with her. I can’t remember what I said exactly, something about her being a disgrace (I must have been about 14 at the time) and I can remember her sitting in the back seat next to me giggling and slurring, “oh, am I drunk?”  That seems something of an amusing anecdote to an outsider, but to anyone in the family, it is fairly confronting because we know that she was an alcoholic. I probably shouldn’t even be admitting that on this blog, but oh well, she’s been dead over ten years now and I don’t have a lot to do with the members of that side of my family who’d be offended, so what the hell, right? Sorry to anyone reading this that is offended; but you know it’s the truth. And you know what an extraordinary woman she was, regardless of her emotional problems. So it’s not worth getting upset about.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to get at here is, when is truth okay? When is it okay to strip back the layers for the sake of expression? Is it okay to be raw when it’s cathartic? And where should one draw the line when it comes to revealing others’ painful truths? For me, admitting to my grandmother’s illness is something of a release. I feel as if I’m doing good by being honest; because she found that hard, and that’s understandable, she was ashamed. There’s something about writing about this sort of ‘real’ stuff that infuses the writing with more power. It becomes interesting somehow. Mr P noticed that, and it was he who first explained it to me. I was kind of annoyed when he first told me to write about what I know because prior to that I’d always written fantasy type stuff and that was the antithesis of what I knew. I was like, hang on, how can just writing stuff you know be the answer to writing well? How can it be that easy? I had been told by a previous English teacher that my writing was cliched and I took offence to that. But it was true. Good writing is characterised by its meaningfulness to the writer.

Recently, someone close to me read a post on this blog. She knew it existed but I’d never actually sent her a link. I was proud of the post I’d written, having had some lovely feedback from friends, and I thought she might enjoy it or at least give me some feedback in the same vein. Instead, the opposite happened. She mentioned it had some factual inaccuracies firstly, and secondly she thought I was leaving myself exposed. Apparently ‘people’ are always out to get you, and they use any means by which to bring you down. So you shouldn’t reveal too much of your ‘real’ self publicly. I felt deflated and sad. Once I’d moved past these feelings, I realised I simply didn’t agree. And that was okay.

I read a lot of amazing blogs. Soulemama, Edenland, RRSAHM, Wanderlust, Flux Capacitor, Stand and Deliver, The Girl Who, The Byron Life, The Bloggess and a wonderful one of a woman I know that I just discovered yesterday – Kirrilee Heartman. This is just a small list – there are more that I read and enjoy. And you know what they all have in common? They are about the truth! A truth. My dad never agreed with me when I used to argue that everyone has their own truth, that there aren’t many things that are equally true for all; he thought I was fence-sitting I guess. But I still believe this, and I think that’s why blogs and life writing are eternally fascinating. People are interesting. And fiction is fabulous, but someone telling the truth (even if it is ‘their’ truth, and a total lie for others) is the most inspiring thing in the world for me. Keeping it real, that’s where it’s at. So even if I piss a few people off unintentionally and what I say isn’t true for everyone, I’m going to keep on telling it like it is, right here to begin with.

 

I can’t believe this is for real

Okay, so I’m all for ‘out there’ writing, experimentation, real dense crazy stuff.  I can’t say I’m the biggest erotica fan, although I did once enjoy some Anais Nin and I thought Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City was great stuff.  But I just read an article in the Guardian about Nicholson Baker‘s new book House of Holes.  Oh. My. God.  Or to be more specific: What. The. Fuck.  Seriously.  Is this for real?  The article is lengthy and well-written, and Baker can obviously write (and obviously earns money from it if he can afford to work from home and live wherever he likes on the east coast of America, alright for some).  But my God, this book sounds utterly ridiculous!  I guess maybe I just don’t get books about sex and fantasies.  I always thought Jilly Cooper was total crap, and I can’t believe so many people love the Clan of the Cave Bear series – what good were they but to skip to the sex scenes and read as a fascinated teen?

It reminded me of when my flatmate in London and I began exchanging books to read and she lent me Chuck Palahniuk‘s Invisible Monsters.  I couldn’t finish it.  What a load of shit!  I hated the writing, most of all.  The style seemed lazy, almost sticking it to the grammar man, like, screw you English, I’m going to write however I like, damn it!  Which is cool, but the arrogance of it just pissed me right off.  It wasn’t pleasurable writing to read.  Unlike The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, which was full of loathsome characters that just make me screw my nose up, and those I didn’t hate just seemed unconvincing (what kind of a teenage girl refers to her vagina as a cunt, for Christ’s sake, yeesh).  But despite all that, the writing in that book is bloody fantastic, real quality.  The storyline is painful, and really doesn’t resonate with me personally, but it still cuts me to the bone, it impacts with a force, and anything it lacks is made up for in the quality of the writing.  So yeah, I wouldn’t read anything else Tsiolkas writes because I find his style, or rather his subject matter, a bit crude, but I bow down to him for his writing.  Palahniuk, on the other hand… I’d rather read bloody TV Week for the rest of my life than read another book by him.

I wonder, what is it that attracts people to this kind of writing?  Why do they love it?  My flatmate who leant me Invisible Monsters absolutely loved it, and she read a number of his other books too.  I couldn’t for the life of me work out what she found so appealing.  And believe me, we did discuss it at length, why she loved it and why I hated it.  I can’t remember the details (it was three years ago) but I think we just agreed to disagree.  If someone gave me a copy of Baker’s new sex book, I’d definitely give it a go (pardon the pun) and I’d do so with an open mind, really.  I just can’t promise I won’t rant on forever about how shite I thought it was… sexual utopia?  Give me a break!