Tell the Truth and use the shit

9 May

I teach writing at Ramapo College and yesterday was our last class of the semester. While I enjoy my students, most of them, I do not like that the things that I think are important to know about writing I have a hard time imprinting on them. I tell them repeatedly that writing is re-writing and that it’s about paying attention, about telling the truth, about ignoring the inner critic, which is usually appears in the form of mother, father or priest.

This semester I decided to build in lots more time for them to rewrite their stories. To force them to re-write. I wanted them to see how much better their work would become by doing so. For the most part, they resisted.  I quote dozens of other writers who say this and mostly the students nod and tell me they’ve heard the same thing every semester from every other writing professor. Still they resist.

One student last semester even told me that he thought re-writing was old school.

I know I gave him a dirty look and I’m sure said something like: You’re simply wrong.

One of my favorite books on writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. (Only a few of my students share my enthusiasm for it.) She talks a lot of the zen of writing.

These are the passages that I read to them, that I want them to take away.

When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or he life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted…

She continues:

Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you…If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work…write toward vulnerability. Don’ worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. 

I love this book, this passage, because it resonates with me. I teach from two other text booky type books for exercises and such, but for me, I think writing is about getting what’s cramped up inside out and so much of it is not about technique and vocabulary–it’s about what Anne is saying–it’s about telling the truth as you see it, about bearing your heart, it’s about being fearless.

It’s about knowing shit happens in life and if you’re a writer, that the shit is material.

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4 Responses to “Tell the Truth and use the shit”

  1. Patricia Patton (@BoomerWiz) May 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    “It’s about knowing shit happens in life and if you’re a writer, that the shit is material”.That’s good.

  2. Chelle May 10, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    Benilde,
    Anne Lamott is among my favorites. Doesn’t surprise me at all that you enjoy her. Hope that you are well, despite computer glitches.
    Wishing and praying the best for you.
    Peace and good.

  3. Lorraine T.Rowe May 10, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    Amen Sistah……..Amen!!!!!!!!

  4. Reginald oliver May 10, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    Thank you so much, you helped me more then you know! As you know I’ve been a fan a long time now and you are only getting better! Would love to attend one of your master classes!

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