© 2016 Melissa Volker

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  • Melissa Volker

Truth in Writing


Whenever I do a reading, questions invariably arise regarding my approach to writing, where my ideas come from and how I get them from head to paper.

None of those are small questions, but I try to answer them in the brief amount of time I tend to have. More than once it became the bulk of the discussion and I was told I ought to write about it, that they found it interesting. It's something that surprised me as, well, I never thought my process or how I think about it all would be interesting to anyone but me. Sure, Annie Dillard wrote about writing, Ray Bradbury has essays on writing, Stephen King has written about it. But, well, they are Annie Dillard, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King!

I mean…really?

However, after the last time, with a woman probing, interested, truly engaged in hearing how I craft my writing, I decided to take her comment that I should write about writing to heart. If she was interested, perhaps others would be as well.

So…here is a beginning.

Writing is such a personal thing. At least for me. Actually, I think for any writer, if they want to be good, to have what they put on paper spring to life and have meaning for the reader, it must be personal. I don’t mean taken from your own life. I mean…personal. Real. Truth.

I was recently editing a draft of a YA magical realism/surreal novel of mine that deals with depression and suicide. It wasn't the first draft. Wasn't really even the second (I can write about drafts another time because I'm a bit circuitous with them). I knew the story already, knew where it went, how it unfolded, what all the twists and struggles were.

And yet, I got to a pivotal scene and was reading the character's inner narrative and I found myself tearing up.

How? How is that possible when I'm the one who wrote the words? None of it was a surprise, none of it was new or unexpected. So how on earth did it elicit emotion?

I thought about that a lot afterward and I realized it was because -- I wrote TRUTH. Truth in all caps. Real, honest, hard, wounding, human TRUTH. And when we hear Truth, we cannot help but react. Something written with real, honest truthfulness speaks to a part of us beyond the surface, far past the ears that hear or eyes that read the words. We experience it in a visceral place far deeper, where we know that, in spite of hundreds of differences between us, we are, ultimately exactly the same. We live. We struggle. We love. We triumph. We fail, hurt, give up, go on…

The same passage could have been written safely, or more cowardly, conveying the story, getting it out, even been written with beautiful language, well-crafted, and not been Truthful.

The only way it will move a reader, the only way they will care and hug the book tight or hurl it across the room or sleep with under their pillow or read it a thousand times until the pages fall from the binding, is if you write it with unabashed honesty. It must be raw. It must be the things we are afraid to say, to see, to know. It must be our darkest fears and greatest hopes spelled out in a way that is undeniable and impossible to mistake.

Even if the story is horror, the nightmares we all share are familiar and will bring you to your knees. What goes bump in the night, or crawls from the corners must be true. Why we fear it, what it represents, how it can drive us mad must be told with frightening honesty. If it's literary and real, then the losses, the loves, the confusions and determination must be conveyed brutally, courageously.

The reason it often isn't is simple -- it means the writer must delve depths and enter corners and open doors that most people spend their lives avoiding at all costs. The reason they are meaningful, impactful, is because they are the things we try to close our eyes to. Or we miss because our eyes our closed to something else. Whether breathtaking beauty that steals language and strength and leaves us humbled and awed, or horrific loss that a compassionate being wouldn't wish on any soul, or an uncomfortable acknowledgment that we are all imperfect and are as capable of inflicting pain as we are afraid of expressing love…all of those things must be confronted by the writer.

We must stand naked before the mirror and not look away. We must accept all we see, feel and come to know.

If we don't, the story will get told and read, but the words will ultimately fall short.

If we do, then the story will get told and read, and the words will ring, sing, chime, thunder. They will tear apart, lift up, wreck and inspire.

It is a scary endeavor to be a writer. A good writer. A true writer.

But that is what I strive for. It is all that matters, really, when I sit down to transcribe a story for a character that has knocked on the inside of my head and told me there is something they need to say. Need people to know. See.

If I can't do it honestly, then there's no point.

If I can't go to the deepest truths, then I've failed.

If I do both -- I might even make myself cry.

And if I do that…then the reader is sure to follow.


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