Honesty Is the Best Policy

by Memoir Mentor on April 25, 2008

As my spring classes at Santiago Canyon College wind down, some of my students have taken some risks recently in the stories they’ve written for class. They’ve revealed feelings about people and past incidents that have stretched beyond the typical safe stories I often see from my students. If anyone is fence-sitting about whether they should opt for honesty over what I call “nice” writing, they could learn a lesson by observing the responses in my classes to the stories I’m referring to here.

We have a critique period after a student reads a story in class. I’ve been blown away by how my students have responded to these more self-revelatory stories. You can see it on their faces and hear it in their comments. The stories resonate with their classmates in ways they haven’t before. Students say things like, “You were talking to me”; “I know just how you feel”; “I didn’t know other people felt that way”; “I’ve lived your life”; “Your story hit me between the eyes,” etc. The discussion that follows is animated and refreshing.

Honest writing fairly jumps off the page at you and typically evokes some kind of visceral response. Sometimes we’re guarded in the way we shape our stories because we fear appearing anything less than stoic, forgiving, appreciative, victorious—nice. What’s so bad about sharing a time of depression, or exasperation with an ornery, aging parent, or bitterness about a father who repeatedly let you down? Safe writing is surface writing that fairly sucks the life out of your story, and the humanity out of you.

Readers are smart. They recognize in a flash when you’re playing it safe. They feel cheated when you keep them at arm’s length with stories crafted in such a way that everything appears cloaked in a rosy glow. What’s more, this kind of writing is just Plain Jane dull.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? How honest should we be in our personal histories? When should we refrain from “telling the truth”?

–Memoir Mentor

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