For the first couple years I was in college, I spent the summers working at my hometown newspaper. It was a small weekly publication, and it introduced me to deadlines, editing, and how much I didn’t know about writing.
It was a great experience, and I seriously considered not going back to college after that first summer. I was addicted to being in the know, even if my sphere of knowledge was largely limited to the county around me. I also loved feeling like the words I wrote mattered to someone, and I held the belief that I was part of some larger fraternity of journalists, with whom I shared a code of ethics and a responsibility to the community I represented.
I was nothing if not an idealist.
During that first summer, I remember my mom asking me what I’d do if I had to report on something that involved a member of our family. Her question went something like this: If it was bad, you wouldn’t write about it would you? I think she was hoping for a different answer than the one I gave.
I don’t remember the exact words I used, but I know I suggested she tell the family to stay out of trouble. If any of our kin found their way onto a police blotter, they were going to make the paper. End of story. I had an obligation to the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make things on the home front.
I like to think I still retain some of the idealism I had when I was younger. Though, admittedly, I am a lot less militant than I used to be. I’ll always stand up for what I believe, but I no longer go out of my way to shine the “flashlight of truth” on those I disagree with and then beat them into submission with the handle. With age comes both patience and weariness.
Even though I’ve relaxed a little, I still believe in an obligation to the truth, especially in fiction. The worlds and the people we create may be imaginary, but the things we say are real. Every novel tells at least two stories: one about the plot and another about the writer.
We aren’t just telling a story. We’re also broadcasting our views, values, and prejudices, whatever they may be. And before you say to yourself, “That’s not me. I write about Jupiter’s dystopian future in which the Gas Lords are overthrown by citizens of the Great Red Spot.” I offer this in response: you can’t help it.
Just as your personality informs the decisions of your everyday life, so too will it find its way into your writing. The audience will figure you out pretty quickly, so if you’re willing to put yourself out there, you might as well be honest about the kind of human being you are.
Don’t apologize. Don’t placate. Just tell the story you want to tell, regardless of how brutal, ugly, sappy, or sexy it is. Be honest about how you see the world, and don’t let yourself, or anyone else, censor what it is you have to say.
I heard a good summation of this point when I attended a writer’s conference in Oklahoma. During a panel, mystery author Mary Willis Walker was asked if she ever considered what her father might say in response to some of her scenes. Did this idea ever give her pause during the writing process?
Her response was perfect. In a nutshell, she said you have to care enough about your story not to care what anyone else thinks. Care enough not to care.
As a writing mantra, it ain’t half bad.