I’m obsessed with the podcast Smartless right now. Hosted by Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett, the show features a “mystery guest” each week brought on by one of the three whom the others don’t know about ahead of time.
Because there’s no time to research or prepare, it generally winds up being an hour of four people casually chatting as if they were alone in one of their living rooms–and it often results in startlingly candid conversations about deeply personal issues, like Robert Downey Jr. discussing his time in jail, or Dax Shepherd talking about his addiction and recovery, or Julia Louis Dreyfus sharing hilariously inappropriate personal information. Because the hosts are clearly close friends and are all so quick-witted—as are most of their guests, often also friends of theirs—it also yields some of the best banter you’re likely to hear.
And all this is what makes me love the show so much–it’s just real.
Real is powerful. It’s the reason for the old showbiz adage never to do a scene with animals or children: Because against a completely natural, authentic being, “acting” looks artificial.
And it’s why the most memorable stories stay with us—not only do the characters become real to us, but the author lets her naked soul, with all its glory and gunk, onto the page, and we sense it; it creates an exceptional intimacy between us and the story.
We know the difference between a real connection with someone and the surface exchanges that make up so much of our daily lives, from casual encounters to social media posts to even the perfunctory habitual conversation with our closest loved ones that can result from years of putting up battlements around our tenderest and most vulnerable places.
In my work as an editor I frequently see authors skim quickly past some of the most potentially rich, impactful moments of their stories, or gloss over the depths of emotion they might mine out. Why would we as writers neglect to fully squeeze all the juice out of the characters and situations we’ve so painstakingly created?
My hypothesis is that, just as we may do with our personal relationships, we unconsciously keep protected those most naked parts of ourselves, the ones that can be windows into our most unguarded selves. The ones that may make us dive deep into uncomfortable or painful places.
Yet that, so often, is where you’ll dig out the most flawless diamonds.
So how can you bring that kind of authenticity to your own writing?
This morning I wrote a fan letter to an author whose latest book I adored (I do this a lot), delineating exactly what I loved most about her book. As I wrote I noticed myself searching for the perfectly worded phrasing, the most powerful descriptors to convey my level of appreciation for her writing.
Each time I caught myself drifting away from what was simply authentic and real, I kept stopping to ask myself, What’s driving me to write this?
My most genuine intention wasn’t to impress or forge a connection with the author, or to write an expertly crafted review of her book, or entice her to let me feature her in a future “How Writers Revise” post—though all those would be side effects I’d be happy to achieve. My truest intention was simply to express my honest feelings and reactions to the story she created.
That kind of unvarnished sincerity might not be perfectly polished, but it’s real, and the reader senses that. We usually know when we’re being snowed (just check out the average social media post)—and we know how it feels when someone is open and honest and true with us.
The hard part is that being real requires letting go of a little bit of control…dropping that veneer of protection around our truest selves that keeps us from risking judgment on what’s most deeply personal and raw inside us. What if we’re genuine and it sucks? What if we’re utterly real and people hate it—not just our writing but our honest selves?
But that’s the risk. That’s what makes art both hard and sublime: the exhilaration and terror of tearing off the facades and showing the world what’s true.
How to Get Real in Your Writing
Every time you sit down to write—whether fiction, nonfiction, or even an email—try starting by reminding yourself not what you want to accomplish or what impression you want to give or how it might impact readers, but what’s actually motivating you to want to write this in the first place, what you want to convey or express. It may not come out finely polished, but that’s what editing is for—as they say in the film biz, you can fix it in post.
Or if it’s easier, do it the other way around: If you find yourself defaulting to tired clichés or emotional shortcuts in your early drafts, just go with it. I often shorthand this kind of empty or overused verbiage in brackets, my signal to myself to go back later in revisions and dig deeper, explore more authentic and original descriptions and emotions.
Look for where you’ve taken easy shortcuts. If you’ve used general descriptors, for instance, to simply label reactions—“devastated,” “heartbroken,” “shattered,” “furious,” etc.—see if you can go deeper, put yourself into that situation and imagine what it might feel like—viscerally, emotionally, in your most raw and real places. Put that on the page.
Consider the trite tropes you may unconsciously have parroted. How many times have you read of a single tear trailing poignantly down someone’s cheek? How often have you actually “swallowed back bile” or vomited from an upsetting experience? Admittedly I’m not Everyreader, but when I cry it’s rarely so poignant or pretty as a lone tear, and the only times I’ve had to fight throwing up are when I’m ill, in a turbulent flight, or cleaning up something horrific that came out one of my dogs’ orifices.
Maybe these phenomena truly happen, but even if they’re actually as common in life as they seem to be in fiction, overused phrases like these have become clichés, void of meaning—or any real emotional response in the reader.
Empty descriptions like these are shortcuts writers have seen so often in stories they become an automatic default setting for describing reactions, rather than taking the time to really sit and imagine experiencing what characters are going through: how that might feel, look.
If you’ve defaulted to letting external or physical responses stand in for the truer reactions that prompted them, see if you can keep pushing through to what’s behind those externalizations: If “tears fill his eyes” or “her fists clench” or “her brows draw downward,” what’s causing those physical reactions, exactly? What might actually, concretely be going on inside someone that could result in those responses? Put that on the page.
Maybe it really is swallowing back bile, but can you find a more authentic way of conveying that reaction? How do you see it? What do these emotions feel like when you experience them? How might it affect you to go through something like what your character is going through–and how can you convey that as straightforwardly and truthfully as possible?
This is what brings a story to life, sets it apart, gives it truth and power and voice. This is what turns readers into fans: that they can count on a favorite author to give them an authentic experience, to plunge them into a story and characters that are so genuine and true they feel real and stick with them long after they turn the final page.
Authors too often fixate on making their prose perfect or pretty. Don’t worry about that. Make it real, genuine, true. That’s what creativity is–and it’s what creates that most powerful effect of story: making your reader connect, believe, feel.
How about you, authors—in your own writing do you catch yourself shortcutting with easy descriptors or defaulting to phrases you may have read in other stories? Does it feel different when your writing is most naked and genuine and real? Does it scare you to go to those places or write without the fetters of worrying how it will come across to readers? What stories have affected you the most deeply and personally, and why?